Many African nations, struggling to combat terrorism, invite the US military to assist, but they be inviting in more than they bargained for.
MINNEAPOLIS — Under the cover of the United States Africa Command, or AFRICOM, the United States has stepped up its military presence in Africa. So, when more than 250 schoolgirls in Chibok, Borno state, were kidnapped by al-Qaida-linked Boko Haram in April, the U.S. took it as an opportunity to further strengthen its military and intelligence presence in Africa’s most populous and oil rich country — Nigeria.
As the U.S. increases and strengthens its military presence in 13 African countries, al-Qaida affiliates and militant groups continue to intensify their devastation in West Africa and the Horn of Africa.
For years, the U.S. military has showed up in sub-Saharan countries rich in both oil and resources to engage in active military operations and training. Military analysts suggest that the U.S. engagement in Africa is aimed at waging war against supporters of terrorist groups, like Nigeria’s Boko Haram and Somalia’s al-Shabab, that have cells popping up across the continent.
AFRICOM, the U.S. military’s sixth regional command, has broadly positioned itself across Africa since its establishment during the Bush administration. It says it is involved in increasing the number of wars against al-Qaida affiliates and militant groups.
According to the Institute for International Strategic Studies, these groups are linked with others across Africa and abroad, such as the al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.
Infiltrated police and armed forces
When Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan admitted that Boko Haram had “infiltrated” the government’s armed forces and the police, U.S. authorities promptly sent military and intelligence officials to Abuja.
Though Washington supports the U.S. military presence in the country, that doesn’t necessarily mean Nigerians do, too.
“Each country has its own sovereignty and should be able to manage it for its own citizens,” Timothy Adekola Adediran, president of the Minnesota Institute for Nigerian Development (MIND), an umbrella organization for about 15,000 Nigerians in Minnesota, told MintPress News. “I’ll say the role of the U.S. should be in the interest of Nigeria, and I’ll not suggest that they stay there permanently.”
For many Africans, the U.S. military presence on the continent is purely for the sake of U.S. interests and geopolitical advantages, as Boko Haram kidnappings have been taking place there for over a decade. Some have noted, for example, that the U.S. became interested in “bringing back our girls” in Nigeria not long after some of Africa’s largest oil reserves were discovered there. In light of these and other considerations, the U.S. military training programs have been received with mixed reactions.
For Africans in the diaspora, it is unfortunate that conflicts and kidnappings continue unabated on the continent. And for many Nigerians living in the U.S., the news of the kidnappings of the young Nigerian schoolgirls was not encouraging.
“It is unfortunate that our [African] countries are unable to defend themselves… This has probably led the U.S. to pledge assistance to Nigeria to locate and secure the release of those girls that were abducted,” Adediran said.
No word about missing girls
Since the U.S. announced that it would send military forces to help search for the missing schoolgirls, not much has been heard from the military advisers it sent and the girls are still missing. Meanwhile, Boko Haram has proposed exchanging the girls for the group’s militants held by the Nigerian government. In recent weeks, Boko Haram has intensified its attacks on civilians, killing about 15 people in the state of Borno.
That the U.S. military doesn’t share the information and intelligence it collects from the continent with its African partners is a common complaint.
“Although AFRICOM is providing the needed security, humanitarian and crisis response training for the African military, its core mission remains the promotion of the United States’ interest and security,” Papa Faal, author of “A Week of Hell,” a chronicle of what happened in The Gambia when a group of poorly-trained, low-ranking soldiers overthrew a democratically-elected government in the West African nation, told MintPress.
“The presence of AFRICOM in such volatile continent is crucial in providing stability and security for the people of Africa,” Faal, also an assistant lecturer at ITT Technical Institute in Minneapolis, continued. “However, to achieve a meaningful end for the people of Africa, the United States must ensure that the mission of AFRICOM aligns side-by-side with the security, stability and prosperity needs of the people in addition to promotion of ‘good governance.’”
Adediran says Nigeria, for example, should be able to solve its own problems, since the country has a pool of intellectuals, experts and people who have travelled the world that could contribute to resolving the country’s sociopolitical mess.
“Because the intelligence-gathering in the country has been neglected, corruption has eaten at the fabric of the nation,” said MIND’s Adediran, explaining where Nigeria went wrong by misappropriating allocated military funds. “[By misusing] resources meant for military installment, that have not been used the way they should be used, we became vulnerable to Boko Haram.”
U.S. military or CIA?
Many Africans at home and abroad believe there is a thin line between U.S. military and CIA operations on the continent, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to identify the U.S. government’s goals in Africa.
For the U.S. military and the CIA, most African regimes are incapable of stopping the rapid increase in terrorist groups, and the deteriorating conditions of their militaries, which often lack advanced modern technology, add to the continent’s problems in fighting the perceived enemies of the U.S.
For instance, as the steady stalemate in bringing some of the continent’s wars to an end persists, it is in the United States’ interests to send its military and intelligence personnel to train militaries in Africa.
Adediran believes the kidnapping in Chibok opened many eyes to Africa’s security problems. Especially with the U.S. military on the ground, he had expected the African Union to send troops to help Nigeria.
“Everything is politics. Nigeria is a strong member in the African Union. I don’t know if other countries are intimidated by the size of Nigeria, … but we expect the African Union to play a prominent role, because that is what the charter is about,” Adediran said.
“If there is a need for assistance in the other countries within Africa, those countries within the Union are supposed to rise up within that responsibility and render assistance, rather than playing politics here and there.”
At the World Economic Forum in Nigeria in May, U.S. Marines provided security. Marines patrolled the streets in and around the conference building in Abuja — a reflection of how Washington has reduced Africa’s giant nation to a country that can’t even secure its own streets without U.S. forces.
All about U.S. security
Nigeria has a strategic position on the continent, and the U.S. has seized this opportunity to send its military and intelligence officials into a country that is geographically halfway between the militant terrorists of Northern Africa and al-Shabab in the Saharan region. African political observers note that the U.S. will always secure its interests before lending a hand to Africa and its people, especially since the U.S. has worked with some of the continent’s tyrants, such as late President Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“It is security for them,” Saad I. Samatar, chair of the Minneapolis-based Horn Development Center, said of African governments partnering with the U.S. military. “Also, there is financial gain in leasing their land for U.S. military bases. For their land, they charge fees.”
The U.S. military presence will also serve the efforts of some African governments to monitor the growing drug trade that finances groups with links to al-Qaida, while simultaneously boosting peacekeeping work in troubled regions.
“You cannot just militarize the whole continent, but build infrastructure,” Samatar said of the U.S. monitoring militant groups emerging in West and Eastern Africa, reasoning why the U.S. is building military bases across the continent.
Many experts on Africa note another problem that needs to be addressed: the continent’s militaries. Some, like Prof. Mamadou Diouf, the director of Columbia University’s Institute for African Studies, believe “they are completely unable to contain armed forces within their own borders and outside.”
Militaries have intervened in changing regimes and staging military coups over the years, but technologically, they have been unable to maintain security in various African countries — the U.S. has exploited this kind of weakness to boost its presence on the continent.
As the continent continues to struggle to contain emerging militants and al-Qaida affiliates, in Part II of this series African experts will explain the groups’ funding sources and why Africa is becoming a new battleground for terrorists and U.S. military intervention.