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US military presence in Africa sparks fear of coercive disorder

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Picture Credit: REUTERS/Emmanuel Braun – Chadian special forces soldiers participate in the opening ceremony of Flintlock 2015, a military exercise organized by the US military in Ndjamena.

By Koffi M Kouakou

In the game of influence, security and global power, no other country has been so successful and dominant as the US since the end of World War II. The US presence, mostly military, covers the globe with bases on five continents.

Under former president Barack Obama and more recently president Joe Biden, the US military has made the Asia pivot a strategic priority.

Africa, a relatively little-concern region to the US military during the Cold War, as equated to the Soviet Union and China in Eurasia, is becoming a preferred strategic interest.

The gruesome memories of Somalia in the 1990s and Libyan US and Nato military forays in 2011 are giving room for a new US military presence in Africa.

Lately, Americans are surprised to learn, what many Africans already knew, that the US has a widespread military presence in Africa.

A leaked intelligence report in November 2017 about a fitness database called Strava that “produced a Global Heatmap showing popular exercise routes and streaks revealing loops around airstrips in remote areas across sub-Saharan Africa with undeniable traces of US or European troops,” validates the tentacular US military presence on the continent.

Picture Credit: Abbas Dulleh/AP – In this file picture, U.S marines arrive at the Roberts International airport in Monrovia, Liberia

While the old leak revealed secluded US military bases in several African nations, they hardly tell the full story. What is clear is that the US military presence and deployment strategy in Africa have evolved and widened. They also show how the US is projecting its military power across a weak continent incapable of defending itself against external aggressions, terrorism, or military occupations masquerading as protection concealed from the African public.

The official narratives are that these military bases are temporary.

The bases are found in Mozambique, Tanzania, Burundi, Chagos Islands, Djibouti, Kenya, Somalia, Uganda, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Central African Republic, Chad, Niger, Ghana, Senegal, Liberia, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Egypt, and Morocco.

But this list has grown larger. According to military experts’ estimates, the expanding US imperial-scale military presence numbers 29 military bases across Africa and counting. Of course, the exact number is unknown given the secrecy and covert operations surrounding their strategic nature.

Even more secret is the economics of such a military material presence in Africa. No one knows exactly how much money the warfare cost stands in US black budgets.

The US has now strategically organised a unified military system with special responsibility for the continent known as the United States Africa Command, or Africom.

As Africom gains strength in size and power, Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s recent Africa criss-crossing, to unveil the new US strategy towards sub-Saharan Africa, reignited the debate in Africa as to “Where does the US have troops in Africa, and why?”

The imperial self-justification of US military presence in Africa rests on many reasons. American foreign policy strategists argue that the US must stay and grow its presence in Africa to “protect the interests of the US military in Africa such as diplomacy, academic research, trade, and investment, which have been important factors in achieving social and state security” for African nations.

What is more concerning is the multidimensional role of Africom.

It has become a hydra beyond its original mandate. It now funds a “considerable intellectual ecosystem of foreign policy interest groups that promote US hegemony” such as the British think-tank Chatham House to produce glowing reports about US supremacy as in “America’s Africa Command: Soft Power Warriors”.

The US occupation of Africa is being militarised and it has enormous implications. While powerful, the justifications of US military presence looks more like the occupation of Africa.

Its neo-colonial outlook sits uneasy with Africans. However, resistance in many African states is growing as international service scholar A Carl LeVan says. Africom has not been able to relocate its headquarters from Stuttgart in Germany to Africa because no African state wants to host it. Moreo-ver, African civil societies are worried that funds from Africom will be used to fight and repress domestic political opponents rather genuine terrorists and legitimate threats.

The US presence in Africa is still dominant and multiform. It ranges from political, military, defence, security, cultural influence with language, music, arts, media, and sports.

It is also physical, visible and covert, technological to virtual in cyberspace or commonly known as the internet.

The enormity of military websites, sponsored defence, security, diplomatic and even human rights content production on social media and other platforms, makes the US military one of the most dominant voices on the internet. The US military doctrine about cyberspace dominance is part of the US military doctrine. It used to be called “the information edge” doctrine. It is a technological revolution designed to manage and transform the nature of power, particularly global power. And the US has been in the lead since the 1990s.

Writing about it in the March/April 1996 issue of Foreign Affairs magazine, the mouthpiece of the American elite and defence establishment, Joseph Nye, William Owens and Eliot Cohen boasted about the US information edge capability to thwart any threat.

But the changing nature of warfare makes it difficult to verify if the US still holds the global lead. In Africa, they do. The physical presence is mainly supported by military bases across Africa. The virtual or cyberspace presence is difficult to assess.

Picture Credit: REUTERS/Joe Penney – U.S. Special Operations Command Africa commanding general Brigadier General James Linder (R) shakes hands with a Nigerien military officer during Flintlock 2014.

Talking about US military presence in Africa makes people feel uncomfortable. Many reasons such a discomfort.

First, the acknowledgement of the presence of military bases in Africa tells us that Africans have a problem and cannot solve them, being terrorism or any other issues.

Second, any military presence on a soil conjures the idea of a foreign occupation. The logic of a military deployment strategy alone, with poorly self-justifying reasons such as fighting terrorism to occupy Africa, will not help guarantee a long-term US presence in Africa. Many experts think it will fail. Africa needs integrated development not weaponised military occupations.

The renewed US strategic interests in Africa are concerned with the combined double influence of China’s economic and Russia’s military presence.

In the long run, as Russia and China expand their presence and influence in Africa, perhaps Africans will forge strategic military partnerships to fend of the nefarious US hegemony on the continent. Africans cannot afford an American military presence that leads to a continuous and coercive disorder.

Kouakou is Africa Analyst and Senior Research Fellow at The Centre for Africa-China Studies at the University of Johannesburg.