Sunday, June 01, 2008

No Welcome Mat for Afrikom

It was conceived by Donald Rumsfeld and that alone might go some way to explaining why Arican nations have been stubbornly unwilling to allow American forces a toehold on their continent.

Afrikom (actually "AfriCom" or Africa Command) is a tribute to America's too little, too late attitude to Africa; Washington's foreign affairs disasters in the Middle East; and the dramatic spread of Chinese influence into many African countries. Africans now know that the kindly grandma with the big teeth really is a wolf after all.

Africa has become of great strategic interest to the United States. A quarter of America's imported oil comes from Nigeria and Angola. And the Chinese are going into overdrive to tie up Africa's vast natural resources. Suddenly Africa matters - a lot.

It's a tale of bungled diplomacy and an awfully bad reputation. From the Washington Post:

"With its headquarters on the continent, liaison groups of 20 to 30 military personnel
established in key countries and U.S. units brought in to help with development and relief tasks, the command was envisioned as an example to Africans of how their own armed forces and civilians could work together for the good of their nations.
The trouble was, no one consulted the Africans. "Very little was really known by the majority of people or countries in Africa who were supposed to know before such a move was made," said retired Kenyan army Lt. Gen. Daniel Opande. Worry swept the continent that the United States planned major new military installations in Africa.

"If you know the politics of Africa," said Opande, who has headed U.N. peacekeeping forces in Sierra Leone and Liberia, "you know there are certain very powerful countries who said, no, we are not interested in having a headquarters here." South Africa and Nigeria were among them, and their resistance helped persuade others."

"I think everyone thought it would be widely greeted as something positive," the Africom officer said. "But you suddenly have wide publics that have no idea what we're talking about. . . . It was seen as a massive infusion of military might onto a continent that was quite proud of having removed foreign powers from its soil."

The United States "equates terrorism with Islam," senior Kenyan diplomat Bethuel Kiplagat said, and few African governments wanted to be seen as inviting U.S. surveillance on their own people."

AfriKom is set to go into business on October 1st. For the foreseeable future it'll have to look on Africa from a distance, from its headquarters in Stuttgart.

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