The United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) is one of America’s 11 major military bases dotted around the globe for the purpose of protecting and defending its national security interests, and those of its allies. America, being the leading Western military superpower, has been bearing the brunt of Western security since the end of WWII. The 1960s Cold War ideological rivalry between the former Soviet bloc and the West made it more imperative that America expanded its military operations around the globe to curtail the spread of communism and make the world safe for capitalism. Though Africa has been of strategic interest to the US throughout this period, it did not consider having a coordinated military ‘command’ focused on the continent. The military operations it ran in Africa were conducted mainly through mercenaries, and with local help from many puppet regimes installed across the continent at the time, went fairly well for the US. Africa had been prevented from falling into the hands of hostile communist regimes from outside the continent. Moreover, the US did not really want to be seen as another Western colonial power, dictating the destiny of the Africans in the way the Europeans did in the 19th and 20th centuries. Remember, America itself had to go through their own “war of independence” (1775-1783). So, the US had maintained a tactical distance from direct military installations on African soil for this very reason. Americans had fought to dislodge imperialism from their own soil, and did not wish to be seen as a neo-imperialist force, at least, not in broad daylight.
The above calculation changed, suddenly, in the 2000s, a decade after the collapse of the former Soviet bloc. The old Cold War enemy was in retreat, and a “clash of civilisations” took hold, with violent extremism and “Islamic” and “Jihadist” terrorism which began to re-build and re-shape new geopolitical alliances. The attack on the Twin Towers in the New York Trade Centre on September 11, 2001 crystallised this new reality for the US foreign policy and defence establishment. Africa was willy-nilly dragged into the spotlight – again. The continent was no longer staring down the barrel of a communist takeover, but is now, instead, perceived to be vulnerable to Islamic-inspired terrorism, posing a direct threat to vital US interests in Africa. Because the shape of the new threat is disparate and uncoordinated, since there was no identifiable state spearheading the new ‘global jihadist’ agenda, the hitherto tactical distance the US had maintained in terms of military installation on African soil needed a quick rethink hence, the decision to create AFRICOM to rank amongst others in Europe (EUCOM), Central Command (CENTCOM), Pacific Command (PACOM) and others. What makes AFRICOM so interesting, indeed, so jarring from Nigeria and Africa’s point of view is this. In the early 19th century, when European powers decided on the partition of Africa, they summoned their political and military generals into a cartographic room in Berlin, Germany, to share out portions of Africa that suited their fancy at the infamous “Berlin Conference” in 1885. The Palestinians describe the founding of the Jewish state, Israel, on their land in 1948 as “al Nakba”, or the Catastrophe. The Berlin Conference of 1885 was Africa’s al-Nakba.
Fast forward to the modern day. When the US made up its mind on a forced military ‘supervision’ of African territories in 2007, guess where it decided to pitch its tenth? Yes, you guessed it, Stuttgart, Germany; a stone’s throw away from Berlin. That is not the only coincidence. AFRICOM was established on October 1, Nigeria’s Independence Day. You do not have to be a security analyst to see the symbolism involved in these. AFRICOM being physically located in far-away Germany, the US can still avoid being cast in the shadow of an imperial force, which does not sit comfortably with its avowed Republican ideal. For Kwame Nkrumah and his Pan-Africanist disciples, this is a case of ‘we told you so, Africa’. Nkrumah was the first directly elected President of Ghana, who fought till his last breath for a united Africa in order to combat external (neocolonial) aggression. Without unity, he stated time and again, Africa was doomed. Nigeria was one of many ‘conservative’ voices of opposition to Nkrumah’s agenda to ‘dominate’ Africa. Guess who is dominating Africa now? As if this was not enough of a betrayal, the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), a regional leader in sub-Saharan Africa, and a leading voice in the new African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), an arm of the ‘African Union’, is now appealing to the US to relocate AFRICOM to Africa itself! That clearly is the white flag of surrender and good bye to any lingering illusion about African unity some people might still be nursing.
But, why on earth would the Nigerian leader do this? It is either the greatest foreign policy blunder by a Nigerian leader in history, or a masterstroke of tactical genius by the Nigerian President and his advisers, designed to outmanoeuvre the US.
First on the latter, the Nigerian military under President Buhari has been firing blank of late. On the battlefield with domestic terrorism, it has almost lost the will to fight, let alone defeat the enemy. So, how convenient would it be to have the strongest military on earth to suddenly locate its array of sophisticated weapons, I am sure, (Buhari would ultimately prefer), to Katsina, or even better, Maiduguri. In that respect, Boko Haram could be wiped off in a jiffy. And, those agitating for “restructuring” could be silenced by the sheer presence of a mini-Pentagon on Nigerian soil, whose preference is always to preserve the status quo. On a larger plane, the security analysts in Aso Rock might have also made a broad sweep of the US military presence in several strategic locations such as: South Korea, Germany, Japan, and the Middle East, and concluded that Africa should be no exception. America’s military presence in those political hotspots has kept the peace at little cost to the host countries. Furthermore, the US military presence in Iraq has allowed the ruling clique there to consolidate power at the expense of the vast majority of the population. The same could be said of the US military presence in Saudi Arabia and the Philippines. So, there are innumerable examples of places where the US military might have been a force for good, they reckon. Why not in Africa? As facile as this reasoning might sound, it is not beyond imagination that it is precisely the premise upon which Buhari had based his appeal to the US. “In my call with the US Secretary of State Blinken, I asked the US to consider re-locating the AFRICOM HQ from Germany to Africa – near the Theatre of Operation; against the backdrop of growing security challenges in West and Central Africa, Gulf of Guinea, Lake Chad region of the Sahel”, Buhari said via Twitter on April 27, 2021.
The main problem with this reasoning is that it is plain wrong. The US would not commit its military to any region without a quid-pro-quo. That is to say, America would not give something for nothing. What could that ‘something’ represent for Africa, you might ask? Natural resources of course! What else? If the Chinese are all over Africa with their loose cash, and America joins them with their guns and military fatigues, then, who governs Africa? I mean, who would have the last word on the question? Perish the thought, a Nigerian leader? I guarantee many readers of this column would never have thought they would live to see the day when a Nigerian leader would capitulate so meekly to the allure of a recolonised Africa, even in the face of the most desperate political and economic circumstances.
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