A Missing Story of 2009

One of the seven major “missing stories of 2009” the Washington Post and Foreign Policy Magazine compiled and published in the Post’s November 29, 2009, edition was America’s participation in Uganda’s civil war earlier this year. The article, entitled “America Joins Uganda’s Civil War,” was actually based on a piece published by the New York Times in February.

America Joins Uganda's Civil War

“In January, the New York Times' Jeffrey Gettleman broke the story that the U.S. military had helped plan and fund a Ugandan military attack against an infamous rebel group, the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), in eastern Congo. The attack was poorly executed, allowing the rebel leaders to escape and murder 900 civilians in retaliation. It was the first time the United States had directly participated in actions against the LRA, which is designated a terrorist group by the United States. The LRA's religious fundamentalist leader, Joseph Kony, has abducted tens of thousands of children to serve as fighters and sex slaves in his decades-long guerrilla war against the Ugandan government.
“The United States' new Africa Command (Africom) defended its role in the mission, saying that the Ugandan attack would have happened anyway and that it was "too early to bring a final judgment" about U.S. support. But if some members of the U.S. Congress get their way, Africom's role in the conflict may expand. A pending bill co-authored by Sens. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) and Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and enjoying wide bipartisan support would commit the United States to "eliminating the threat posed by the Lord's Resistance Army ... through political, economic, military, and intelligence support."
“Although few disagree with bringing Kony to justice -- he has refused to leave his jungle hideout since the International Criminal Court indicted him for crimes against humanity -- the bill raises questions about the proper role of Africom, which has thus far functioned in a mostly advisory capacity, and commits the United States to involvement in one of Africa's bloodiest and most complex conflicts. Some debate is probably warranted.”

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Reconsidering AFRICOM under the Obama Administration

By Jahi Issa, PhD.

Over the past year there has been a plethora of essays on AFRICOM.  Those in favor of AFRICOM argue that the new strategic interest in Africa is mutually beneficial to Africa and the United States since the U.S. will be collaborating with African states to curtail instability and secure peace—the conditions necessary to maximize democracy and minimize the potential for terrorism.  Those who oppose AFRICOM argue that to a very large extent United States military policies do not measure up to Africa’s needs and could in all likelihood amount to U.S. imperialistic control over Africa and its people.  In addition opponents say the U.S. is attempting to counter Chinese influence on the continent and secure African oil supplies which will account for 25% of its energy demands by 2015.  Realistically most African leaders see AFRICOM as nothing more than a mechanism of war, a kinder, gentler military intrusion designed to appear less combative than other military operations on the African continent such as Operation Enduring Freedom – Trans-Sahara and the Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa which are connected to the Global War on Terrorism.  The fact that AFRICOM is integrating its aims through the U.S. State Department and USAID does not camouflage its primary militaristic thrust; and it is for that reason that no amount of positive “Public Relation” will convince African leaders otherwise.

More important however is our assessment that both the proponents and opponents of AFRICOM fail to view African leaders and states as actors and sovereign equals on the world stage of international economic and security cooperation.  The United States continues to regard Africa as a regional backwater on the periphery of its central concerns and in spite of efforts such as the Millennium Challenge Account, HIV/AIDS , Malaria intervention and the AGOA, the attitude toward Africa remains basically condescending and patronizing.  The approach to Africa is oriented toward crisis intervention and preemptive policies that view Africa as an empty theater by which the major players compete for high stakes—in other words Africa functions as a backdrop for the U.S. to neutralize its enemies such as communists during the cold war era and today terrorists.  If AFRICOM is about mutual cooperation it must raise a fundamental question in formulating policy, are African interests at the center of AFRICOM’S aims.  

The opponents of AFRICOM argue that the U.S. is moving toward a neo-colonialist stance with regard to the continent which reeks of militarism and imperialist ambition.  The bottom line is that the U.S. needs to secure its oil and other natural resource interests and create an environment conducive to business.  This in part reflects the new scramble for Africa in the 21st century a continuation of western colonialism in a new guise—business as usual or here we go again.  Although their concerns are justifiable in light of the history of slavery and colonialism this perspective is basically reactionary and continues to view the West as the oppressor and Africa as the oppressed.  Africa is not America’s or the West’s victim, but their counterpart with its own strategic interests and resources which can be leveraged through negotiation between sovereign equals. 

If the United States is to compete peacefully in Africa it may want to acknowledge that its interests in Africa is not about benevolence or altruism, and to suggest that it is could be more damaging to its credibility.  Second the U.S. should openly recognize that China’s influence in Africa is only a part of a new emerging world order that has peacefully replaced it and Europe as traditional major players in global trade as indicted by Fareed Zakaria in his book The Post-American World.  It may want to consider that none of these new global players are using the military to advance their interests in Africa.  As Thomas Friedman elegantly states it, the “world is flat” and other nations have recognized and taken full advantage of this fact for quite some time.

My suggestion is that President Obama selects an Assistant Secretary of State for Africa who is culturally competent and attuned to the needs of the African continent.  Hopefully this person would have been seasoned enough to know the importance of bringing Africanists and other scholars from the private and public sectors together to form a team geared toward providing the best solutions as to how the U.S. could strategically and positively increase its influence in Africa.  This person must also recognize that China is not the only nation with increasing influence on the African continent.  Countries such as Brazil, India, Russia and Turkey are all increasing their influence in Africa.

I believe that the Obama administration may be forced to revamp AFRICOM.  We recommend that President Obama demilitarize AFRICOM and utilize agencies such as the Africa Center for Strategic Studies to achieve its security and defense aims.  This of course should be secondary to other U.S. agencies in Africa.  For instance the Departments of Education, Commerce and Transportation could also have similar programs to ACSS to provide venues for African leaders in each of these respective areas.  Instead of relying solely on our military strength, we could do more to support Africa as it defends itself against instability and volatile situations through our endless supply intellectual and technological capacities. We can implement the following:

  1. U.S. president should organically tour Africa once a year.  
  2. Train more African doctors and nurses and make sure they return home.  Increase more scholarships for Africans to study abroad in the U.S.
  3. American basketball, football and baseball players and other athletes as well as artists should do more cultural tours of Africa to heighten visibility.  China cannot compete with American popular culture.   More partnerships with U.S. Blacks, especially HBCUs.
  4. Change policy toward building in Africa.  American leaders should be much more viable/visible in Africa.  U.S. (HBCU’s) college presidents should tour and provide technical assistance and capacity building in Africa.
  5. Increase the Millennium Account’s and USAID budget and invest more in African physical and technological infrastructure.
  6. Asheshi University founded by Patrick Awuah can serve as a model to bring ethical, entrepreneurial leadership to Africa.  This liberal arts college was founded with the support of American universities and companies. Mr. Awuah after working for Microsoft for several years resigned and returned to Ghana to establish this new university in 2002.

It is obvious that Africa is strategic to United States interest. Africans want the United States to engage in equal trade buttressed by their increasing young population, oil and other natural resources exports and an increasing middle class. If we continue to have a myopic vision concerning Africa we risk the chance of engaging Africa unilaterally and increasing China’s and other emerging powers continuing influence on the continent.

Jahi Issa is a professor at Delaware State University