NAMIBIA – Decades after most African nations gained independence, mineral-rich countries like Mali and the Central African Republic still find themselves tangled in a web of outside intervention by former colonial powers and newly-emerging local powers hoping to secure complex political, economic and security interests in the region. Less than two years ago, French air strikes helped […]
NAMIBIA – Decades after most African nations gained independence, mineral-rich countries like Mali and the Central African Republic still find themselves tangled in a web of outside intervention by former colonial powers and newly-emerging local powers hoping to secure complex political, economic and security interests in the region.
Less than two years ago, French air strikes helped topple Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in Libya and French troops assisted in the arrest that sent former Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo to the International Criminal Court in 2011. This year, French troops have already been deployed to fight Tuareg and Islamist separatists in Mali, and most recently to protect French personnel during a March coup in the Central African Republic.
France is not alone on the list of 2013 international interventions in Africa — the United States launched a new drone base in Niger last month, and South Africa is preparing to deploy troops to the Democratic Republic of Congo as part of the United Nations’ first-ever offensive peacekeeping mission.
“Vital interests:” fighting terrorism or securing uranium?
French president Francois Hollande raised the country’s threat level in January following air strikes in both Mali and Somalia against Islamist forces. Hollande said in January that the military operation in Mali would last “as long as necessary,” in order to stop the threat of terrorist attacks on the West.
Over the past year, a military coup ousted former Malian president Amadou Toumani Touré and Tuareg separatists took over much of the northern part of the country while al-Qaida affiliates capitalized on the political unrest. At the request of Malian officials, French troops were deployed in January 2013. While much of the land has been reconquered by international forces, political stability is yet to be secured.
According to Hollande, “Terrorists must know that France will always be there when it’s a question, not of its fundamental interests, but of the rights of the Malian population to live freely and in democracy.”
“By intervening in Mali, France is shouldering her international responsibilities and fulfilling her international obligations,” said French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius in a January press conference. “Vital interests were at stake for us, for Africa, for Europe — so we had to act quickly,” he added.
Despite the claims of politicians, many analysts believe outside intervention in Mali has more to do with economic interests than “fighting terrorism,” or shouldering “international responsibilities.”
The Canadian Centre for Research on Globalization believes France’s main interest in Mali lie in its abundance of uranium. According to the World Nuclear Association, 75 percent of France’s electricity is produced from nuclear energy, making it the country’s key energy resource. France is also the world’s largest net exporter of electricity.
Northern Mali and Eastern Niger, territory claimed by nomadic Tuaregs, are considered among the world’s largest uranium reserves. France announced plans this year to send special forces to Niger to protect uranium mines operated by French energy corporation, Areva.
The Centre for Research on Globalization reported that while Areva has had exclusive rights to uranium exploitation in Niger for the past 40 years, Niger’s government has begun issuing permits over the past six years to Canada, South Africa, the U.S. and other countries to explore uranium and oil in the area.
France began withdrawing troops from Mali this week as the country prepares to hand over power to a U.N. peacekeeping force. One thousand of the original 4,000 French troops will remain in Mali permanently.
U.S. intervention in African nations
While some analysts claim western interests in Mali revolve around natural resources, others maintain that Islamic extremism is a real threat in the Sahel. However, researchers and government officials differ on what type of response is best warranted to address the threat posed by Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
The Oxford Research Group warned in a 2012 report that western military intervention in the region may be used by Islamic extremists as propaganda of further western intervention, especially if the U.S. and France were involved.
The report cautioned military intervention in Mali, “especially if an early phase of military support included a reliance on armed drones and Special Forces.”
Regardless, the Obama administration announced in late February the deployment of about 100 U.S. troops to Niger to establish a drone base to monitor Al-Qaida affiliates in the Sahara. One month earlier, the Pentagon announced that it would begin providing U.S. air tankers to refuel French aircraft in Mali.
Further south, the United States is busy sorting out its interests in the aftermath of the March 24 coup in which Seleka opposition forces overturned former president Francois Bozize in the Central African Republic.
In the aftermath of the coup, U.S. and Ugandan troops suspended joint efforts earlier this month to hunt down war-crimes suspect Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army, who are thought to be hiding in Central Africa. At the same time, the Obama administration announced a $5 million reward for information leading to the arrest of Kony and two other LRA leaders accused of abducting tens of thousands of children over the years.
Roughly 40 U.S. special forces troops will wait to resume their search in the Central African Republic while 60 troops in Uganda, South Sudan, and Congo continue with normal operations, said Major Robert Firman, a Pentagon spokesman.
The United States has had special forces assisting in the hunt for Kony since 2011, but the controversial 2012 short film produced by the group Invisible Children raised international awareness about the efforts to stop the infamous Ugandan warlord still on the loose in Central Africa.
Critics of U.S. intervention say the “Kony 2012” video has been used as a basis for escalating U.S. intervention in the region. Kambale Musavuli, human rights activist and spokesperson for the Friends of the Congo, believes that there are two key motives anytime the U.S. military is involved in Africa: securing oil resources and countering China’s influence.
The former Bozize government issued rights to China National Petroleum Corp (CNPC) to explore under-exploited mineral wealth along CAR’s northeast border with Chad. A South African company was also granted rights to prospect in the southeast part of the country.
Self-appointed President Michel Djotodia said he would review these previously-signed resource deals, saying “I will ask the relevant ministries to see whether things were done badly, to try to sort them out.”
The United States has said it does not recognize the Seleka coalition’s illegitimate seizure of power and urged Djotodia to adhere to a power-sharing deal signed in the Gabonese capital Libreville in January.
“We strongly condemn the illegitimate seizure of power by force by the Seleka rebel alliance, Michel Djotodia’s self-appointment as president, and his suspension of the constitution and National Assembly,” said State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland.
The Seleka coalition expressed frustration at the poor implementation of the power-sharing deal by Bozize’s regime and vowed to act according to the spirit of the Liberville agreements moving forward.
New leader, Same colonial ties
While the U.S. remains critical of the power transition, the new Central African leader has requested assistance from former colonial power France and the United States to rebuild the country, particularly by retraining the army.
“We will rely on the European Union to help us develop this country,” said Djotodia. “When we have been sick, the European Union was at our bedside. It will not abandon us now.”
The Brookings Institute best summarized Central Africa’s continued reliance on its former colonizer on the think tank’s Up Front blog. According to Africa Research Fellow Julius Agbor and Project Coordinator of the Africa Growth Initiative Michael Rettig, the March coup was rooted in economic grievances and an ineffective governance system dating back to colonial rule and further compounded by international meddling.
“Furthermore, France’s strategy of super-imposing its military presence in its former colonies (in order to protect its economic interests) has greatly undermined the ability of French-speaking African states to constitute a veritable national army that is capable of defending their territories against internal as well as external aggressors,” said Agbor and Rettig.
“It is therefore easy to understand France’s frequent military intervention in its former colonies (as in Côte d’Ivoire in 2011 or recently in Mali), but it is also easy to see why France’s nonintervention in cases like the recent CAR coup is perceived as a betrayal in some quarters,” they added.
France responded to a military aid request from former president Bozize in December by sending troops to protect French personnel while refusing authorization of any military attack against the Seleka opposition.
Is South Africa the next major interventionist?
France may have refrained from authorizing a military offensive in CAR, but South Africa did provide troops to fight the Seleka rebels and is heavily paying the consequences.
South Africa ordered the deployment of 400 troops to help fight against the Seleka rebellion in January. However, the deaths of 13 South African soldiers in a bloody battle on March 24 sparked an uproar about the justification for the original troop deployment. Another 27 South African soldiers were wounded in the conflict.
The ANC government is accused to sending South Africans to serve as mercenaries to prop up CAR’s former dictator and protect personal economic interests. Emerging reports allege that the troops were sent to protect mining interests of high-ranking ANC officials in the Central African Republic.
“We reject any insinuation that these soldiers were sent to the Central African Republic for any reason other than in pursuit of national interests, and the interests of the African continent,” said South African president Jacob Zuma.
Helen Zille, leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance said, “What makes this intervention even more disturbing is that the deployment was reportedly undertaken against expert military advice, allegedly to protect the business interests of a politically connected elite, both in South Africa and in the Central African Republic.”
South Africa’s Mail & Guardian magazine claims that the country’s interests in CAR are linked to oil exploration company DIG Oil and Inala Centrafrique, a public-private partnership registered in 2006 with 65 percent stake in a South African company.
Inala Centrafrique was allegedly created as a mechanism to buy diamonds from the Central African Republic’s small-scale miners, but included a larger plan to “give Inala and its ANC-linked shareholders total dominance of the CAR’s diamond market” through a mining police force and an export monopoly for South Africa.
In response to the outrage, president Zuma has announced a withdrawal of all troops remaining in the Central African Republic. With troops on the way home, the South African leader visited the region himself to attend a summit of central African leaders in Chad to formulate a response to the Seleka takeover in CAR.
As South Africans grieve the highest number of military casualties since the end of Apartheid-era rule in 1994, president Zuma prepares to send troops to join the first-ever U.N. offensive mission to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Questions about the country’s increased military intervention across the continent will not subside as South Africa joins the ranks of the U.S. and France in the international competition for influence across Africa.