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Comment & analysis

AFRICOM: Making peace or fuelling war

Part 2 of a two-part essay

Daniel Volman and William Minter

2009-04-30, Issue 430

http://pambazuka.org/en/category/comment/55952

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In the second of a two-part article exploring the implications of the US AFRICOM (the United States Africa Command) programme, Daniel Volman and William Minter continue their discussion of the increasing prominence of the African continent within US strategic interests. Underlining the US' need to prioritise dialogue with African governments and civil society groups over merely assisting repressive regimes and emphasising military-to-military relationships, Volman and Minter argue that AFRICOM's activities should be fully integrated within overall US policy. While Africa's serious conflict-related problems will ultimately not be resolved by external interests, the authors contend, the US needs to take its responsibilities around not inflaming conflict seriously, responsibilities which can only be sustainably fulfilled through genuinely supporting measures to improve African livelihoods.

CONTINUITY OR CHANGE

Will the Obama administration seriously re-examine the Africa policy it has inherited from its predecessors? Or will continuity be the watchword? The few indications we have so far, from campaign statements and Obama's choice of top officials, point to continuity. Yet the critical tests will be in practice as African crises force their way onto the agenda even while the administration's energies are primarily focused on more prominent domestic and international challenges.

PATTERNS FROM THE PAST

During his presidential bid, Senator Barack Obama's statements signalled continuity with Bush administration policies on Africa, including security issues. Paralleling his prominent remarks on Afghanistan, the candidate's reply to a questionnaire from the Leon Sullivan Foundation in September 2007 noted that 'there will be situations that require the United States to work with its partners in Africa to fight terrorism with lethal force', leaving open the door for attacks on Somalia. In an article written for AllAfrica.com in September 2008, Witney Schneidman, deputy assistant secretary of state for African affairs in the Clinton administration and adviser on Africa to the Obama campaign, said the new administration 'will create a Shared Partnership Program to build the infrastructure to deliver effective counter-terrorism training, and to create a strong foundation for coordinated action against al-Qaeda and its affiliates in Africa and elsewhere.' He added that the programme 'will provide assistance with information sharing, operations, border security, anti-corruption programs, technology, and the targeting of terrorist financing'. Schneidman further argued that 'in the Niger Delta, we should become more engaged not only in maritime security, but in working with the Nigerian government, the European Union, the African Union, and other stakeholders to stabilize the region.'

Even more significant a signal was Obama's choice of General James Jones as his national security advisor. As commander of NATO and EUCOM from 2003 through 2006, General Jones was an enthusiastic advocate of AFRICOM. US Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, who is well-placed to be an advocate for multilateral approaches to peace in Africa, is nevertheless on record as having endorsed Bush administration air strikes on Somalia at the time of the Ethiopian invasion. And she has been a prominent advocate of direct bilateral US military action in Darfur.

On 9 February 2009, acting Assistant Secretary of State Phil Carter, speaking at the Pentagon's Africa Center for Strategic Studies, opened his remarks with the claim that 'the one foreign policy success of the previous administration is Africa'. He outlined four priorities, beginning with 'providing security assistance programs' to African partners, followed by promoting 'democratic systems and practices', 'sustainable and broad-based market-led economic growth' and 'health and social development'. Although he prefaced his list of priorities with a reference to support for ending conflict in Africa and 'African solutions to African problems', it's telling that the description of the security priority includes military capacity-building and AFRICOM operations, but no mention at all of diplomacy.

Such indications do not give great confidence in any major shift in security strategy. Nevertheless, there are also signals that US officials, including some in the military and intelligence community, do recognise the need to give greater emphasis to diplomacy and development. The initial US welcome to the election of moderate Islamist Sheikh Sharif Ahmed as president of Somalia is potentially an indicator of a new approach to that complex crisis. Incoming Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair told the Senate in his first annual threat assessment that 'the primary near-term security concern of the United States is the global economic crisis.' Blair's survey covered traditional security threats, including 'extremist groups using terrorism', but also stressed the need for the United States to not only deal with 'regions, regimes, and crises' but also to participate in developing new multilateral systems.

CHANGING PRIORITIES

For Africa in particular, realities call for a different ordering of priorities, recognising the significance of less conventional threats and the inadequacy of narrow military responses. In a report released in February this year, TransAfrica Forum called for a new policy framework based on 'inclusive human security'. Such a framework would require fundamental shifts in thinking, stressing multilateral cooperation over unilateral initiatives, a broad range of threats than only those from violent enemies, and investment in basic economic and social rights over blind trust in the market.

US Africa policy based on such a framework would look very different than that outlined by Assistant Secretary of State Carter as the inheritance from the Bush administration, even if containing many of the same elements. In the economic and development arena, it should build on the example of the response to AIDS, both multilateral and bilateral, to address African needs in health, education, food, economic infrastructure and the environment, with all countries paying their fair share. The United States should open a genuine dialogue about trade and development policy, instead of imposing rigid free-market policies that are systematically biased in favour of rich countries. And the administration should draw on the insights and contributions of the large community of recent African immigrants to the U. S., many of whom are engaged in family and community projects to help their countries.

Within the arena of traditional security issues, the United States should minimise bilateral military involvement with Africa, which risks sucking the US into local conflicts, in favour of multilateral diplomacy and peacekeeping, including paying US peacekeeping arrears at the UN. It should take care not to aid repressive regimes or to prioritise military-to-military relationships, in favour of dialogue not only with incumbent governments but also civil society. In short, it should shift from an emphasis on counter-insurgency and building Washington-centred networks of influence with African military establishments to an emphasis on US participation in multilateral efforts to enhance African security.

In theory, AFRICOM's activities, as well as the related peacekeeping training programmes administered by the Department of State, should be integrated within overall US policy, including diplomatic action on African crises and collaboration with African, European and United Nations partners in peacekeeping operations. In practice, as the Henry L. Stimson Center's Victoria Holt and Michael McKinnon have said, the United States has been ambivalent about multilateral action, under both the Clinton and Bush administrations. Democrats and Republicans alike have approved and supported United Nations and African Union peacekeeping missions. But the United States is still regularly from US$700 million to US$1.5 billion in arrears on peacekeeping dues owed the United Nations. And it failed to respond even to urgent requests for essential logistical support, such as helicopters for the mission in Darfur. Coordination of diplomacy with support for peacekeeping has been weak even within the US government, while the US military remains opposed to US participation in multilateral operations that are not commanded by US officers.

The most innovative US programme to support multilateral peacekeeping has been Africa Contingency Operations and Assistance (ACOTA), administered by the State Department and part of the Global Peace Operations Initiative (GPOI) decided by G8 leaders in 2004. This programme has trained some 45,000 African peacekeepers since 2004, with a training package and 'train-the-trainer' components that are said to be based on UN standards. Yet there is no evidence that this programme is integrated into a broader strategy of US diplomatic priorities in Africa or capacity building in collaboration with the United Nations. As a bilateral training programme under exclusive US management, when the United States is also engaged in bilateral counter-insurgency training and operations with many of the same countries, it inevitably raises questions about the real priorities in military-to-military relationships.

The United States does have resources, particularly logistical and financial, that are relevant for peacekeeping operations, and has the responsibility to make its fair contribution as a leading member of the international community. But ensuring that these actually contribute to peace requires a new framework, giving priority to multilateral diplomacy and peacekeeping over bilateral programmes.

ELEMENTS OF A NEW SECURITY FRAMEWORK

Moving to a new framework isn't a matter of finding new formulas to replace the inherited emphasis on building counter-insurgency capacity against terrorism and threats to natural resources. There's no one prescription for those countries now facing violent conflicts, much less for the wide range of issues faced by over 50 African countries. Africa's serious problems, moreover, will not be solved from outside, either by the United States or by the 'international community'.

Nevertheless, it's important to ensure that US Africa policy does no harm and that the United States makes a significant contribution to diminishing the real security threats on the continent. Once one recognises that US national security also depends on the human security of Africans, some essential elements of such a framework do become clear. To what extent they can be embodied into practice will depend not only on the internal deliberations of the new administration in Washington, but also on whether Africans working for peace and justice on the continent can themselves chart new directions and make their voices heard.

Prioritize long-term inclusive human security

At a global level, National Intelligence Director Blair's threat assessment echoed the growing recognition that economic, environmental and other 'non-military' threats can only be ignored at our peril. The implications for Africa policy should be clear. The optimistic assumption that developing regions could be 'de-linked' from the global economic crisis has quickly been abandoned. While there may be no direct link between hardships deriving from economic, health and environmental threats and the threats of violent conflict, ignoring such broader threats is a sure recipe for disaster. Investment in sustainable development, preserving the environment, democratic accountability and broad access to basic rights to health, education and housing between and within countries is not charity. It's only prudent. And solutions in Africa and in the United States are interconnected.

Take an example from only one sector: energy and global warming. The development of alternative energy sources in the United States can reduce the demand for oil, thus reducing the presumed need to support oil-producing regimes regardless of their human rights records. It's also essential to slow global warming, which is already having severe consequences for the environment in Africa, even though Africa produces only a small fraction of world's greenhouse gases. At the same time, the United States should support efforts to make both oil companies and governments accountable for the use of oil revenue, investing it both to benefit their citizens and to foster development sectors not so vulnerable to the boom and bust of the oil economy.

None of these measures are easy, of course. Nor are they a substitute for resolving open conflict in critical oil-producing regions such as the Niger Delta in Nigeria. But the fact is no other approach has a chance of being sustainable. Prioritising counter-insurgency provides no shortcut. In such a context, providing US military assistance is only to add fuel to the flames.

More generally, US policy toward each region of the continent – including strategic countries such as South Africa, Nigeria, Algeria, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo – must feature cooperation and dialogue on a wide range of issues affecting human security, rather than prioritising military-to-military relationships. As noted below, it is critical to foster new opportunities for both societies and governments to dialogue about solutions to common problems of human security.

Pay attention to crises, but avoid 'one size fits all' approaches

Governments don't have the luxury, however, of paying attention only to long-term structural issues. Immediate crises demand responses. Violent conflicts or failed states have consequences not only for the lives lost and the countries directly involved, but also for surrounding regions and for the continent as a whole. The costs of humanitarian response from the international community multiply in proportion to the delays in acting. And, as the surge of piracy in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Guinea has recently reminded the world, the consequences are economic as well as humanitarian. Within conflict zones, personal and collective investments in health, education and infrastructure can be wiped out in a matter of months.

The list of Africa's hottest crises is familiar: Sudan (including but not limited to Darfur), Somalia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Zimbabwe. Others fester as well, out of the spotlight of the world's media: Chad, Côte d'Ivoire and Uganda, to name only a few. In each case, it's not only the countries and their immediate neighbours that are involved. Other stakeholders, including regional African organisations, the African Union, the United Nations and global powers such as the United States are called on to respond. And the responses – or failures to respond – matter. But no 'one size fits all' response can possibly make sense, and certainly not the AFRICOM model focusing on building counter-insurgency capacity for Africa's armies.

In shaping the mix of diplomacy, pressures, humanitarian, and peacekeeping actions that have the best chances for success in any particular case, a unilateral US approach is sure to be ineffective or counterproductive. But simply advocating 'African solutions for African problems' is a rhetorical gimmick rather than a real alternative. African political leaders must be part of the solution, and, with very few exceptions, diplomacy must engage all parties to a conflict, including those most guilty of aggression or human rights abuses. But those states closest to the crises, and prominent in regional organisations, also have their own interests. Even when there is a consensus, such as with the creation of the African Union mission to Darfur, the resources may be lacking, setting up such a solution for failure in advance.

And while the institutional capacity of the African Union for peacemaking is growing, like the United Nations its effectiveness depends on member states and on the political compromises among its leaders. The selection of Muammar Gaddafi of Libya as chair of the African Union for 2009, for instance, isn't likely to signal increased capacity for peacemaking.

But the time has long passed for anyone to take current African heads of state as the only spokespeople for the continent, or to focus hopes for change on replacing one leader with another. Finding the best way forward in responding to crises or to Africa's structural problems must go beyond the top. Africa's resources for change and for leadership are also found in civil society, among respected retired leaders and other elders, and among professionals working both in governments and in multilateral organisations, including both diplomats and military professionals. The challenge for US policy is to engage actively and productively in responding to crises, bringing US resources to bear without assuming that it is either possible or wise for the United States to dominate.

Build institutional capacity for multilateral peacemaking and peacekeeping

In contrast to the emphasis on building bilateral US military ties with Africa being institutionalised in AFRICOM, US security policy toward Africa should instead concentrate on building institutional capacity within the United Nations, as well as coordinating US relationships with African regional institutions with United Nations capacity-building programmes. At the same time, it should work to ensure that both US and United Nations policies and operations with respect to African crises are transparent and open to review by legislative bodies and civil society groups in Africa, in the United States and in other countries that are involved.

This proposal for a new direction isn't based on any assumption that the United Nations has the answer to Africa's crises. On the contrary. In a statement on 23 February, Under-Secretary General for Peacekeeping Operations, Alain Le Roy, told the Security Council that the organisation's peacekeeping efforts are overstretched and in several cases at risk of 'mission failure'. Missions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and in Sudan have mandates that far exceed their capacity, and the Security Council has just voted two new mandates for forces in Chad and in Somalia. 'We face operational overstretch and, I would argue, political overstretch too', he added. 'There is a constant strain now between mandates and resources, between expectations and our capacity to deliver.'

Nevertheless, even governments as congenitally opposed to multilateralism as the outgoing Bush administration have found United Nations peacekeeping to be an essential resource. UN actions will always be dependent on the willingness of member governments to cooperate, and vulnerable to indecision and bureaucratic delay. But it's long past time to strengthen the institution's capacity for peacemaking and peacekeeping. Public opinion around the world, and in the United States, has long favoured increased responsibility and resources for the United Nations. Polls in late 2006 in 14 countries in different regions, for example, showed that majorities of 64 per cent favoured 'having a standing UN peacekeeping force selected, trained, and commanded by the United Nations'. In the same poll, 72 per cent of US respondents approved this option. While the stereotype persists among US policymakers that the public is sceptical about the United Nations, polls consistently show strong public support, including for payment of dues in full (see Benjamin Page and Marshall Bouton, The Foreign Policy Disconnect, University of Chicago Press, 2006).

Building United Nations peacekeeping capacity implies not only financial resources of course, but also internal and external oversight to check possibilities for corruption and abuses, just as would be the case for governments in Africa or in the United States. The framework for inclusive human security released by TransAfrica Forum in February, for example, calls for new mechanisms to ensure civil society and legislative input and review of both US government and multilateral agencies.

Despite the expectations for change, it is likely that shifts by the Obama administration in security policy toward Africa will only emerge piecemeal, if at all, after the appointment of new mid-level personnel and policy reviews reportedly under way in every agency. The new president's popularity and the range of domestic and global problems he faces are likely to give the administration a large window of opportunity before disillusionment sets in. But events on the ground will not allow indefinite delay. It will soon become apparent, in Somalia, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and perhaps in other crises not now predictable, to what extent African hopes placed in President Obama will find answers in changes that make a difference for Africa.

* This article was originally published by Foreign Policy In Focus.
* Daniel Volman is the director of the African Security Research Project and a member of the board of directors of the Association of Concerned Africa Scholars. William Minter is the editor of AfricaFocus Bulletin and co-editor with Gail Hovey and Charles Cobb, Jr. of No Easy Victories: African Liberation and American Activists over a Half Century, 1950–2000 (Africa World Press, 2007).
* Please send comments to editor@pambazuka.org or comment online at http://www.pambazuka.org/.


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