In February 2007, President George Bush announced the creation of a unified military command for Africa – AFRICOM. That development puts the continent on par, in the Pentagon’s eyes and command structure, with the Pacific Rim (Pacific Command), Europe (European Command), Latin America (Southern Command), the Middle East (Central Command), and North America (Northern Command).
The Pentagon and many military analysts argued that the continent’s growing strategic importance necessitates a dedicated regional command. But some experts suggest the command’s creation was motivated by more specific concerns: China and oil.
With Soviet influence gone and France’s traditional presence much diminished, China has poured money into Africa in recent years as it jockeys for access to natural resources. And the United States, in 2007, was projected to import, at least, 30 per cent of its oil from Africa by 2021, according to the National Intelligence Council.
Three U.S. regional commands currently share responsibility for American security issues in Africa. The Europe Command is responsible for the largest swath of the continent: North Africa, West Africa (including the Gulf of Guinea), and central and southern Africa.
The Central Command covers the Horn of Africa including Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, Djibouti, and Sudan as well as Egypt.
But now, in a move that seems destined to be opposed by, especially, those who describe themselves as ‘progressives,’ President Muhammadu Buhari, has called on the United States to reconsider relocating US Africa Command (AFRICOM) from Stuttgart, Germany, to Africa.
His reason? To move AFRICOM nearer to its Theatre of Operation – Africa. The president said that “considering the growing security challenges in West and Central Africa, Gulf of Guinea, Lake Chad region and the Sahel, weighing heavily on Africa, it underscores the need for the United States to consider relocating AFRICOM Headquarters from Stuttgart, Germany, to Africa and near the Theatre of Operation.’’
The president also appealed to the international community to support Nigeria and the sub-region in their efforts to tackle growing security challenges to avoid spillovers to other parts of Africa and, maybe, the world.
The president, who spoke during a virtual meeting with the US Secretary of State, Mr Anthony Blinken, said AFRICOM, which partners with countries to counter transnational threats, should be relocated to Africa to strengthen ongoing efforts to check the security situation, with likely effect on other nations.
“The security challenges in Nigeria remain of great concern to us and impacted more negatively, by existing complex negative pressures in the Sahel, Central and West Africa, as well as the Lake Chad Region.
Compounded as the situation remains, Nigeria and her security forces remain resolutely committed to containing them and addressing their root causes.”
According to the president, the support of important and strategic partners, like the United States, “cannot be overstated as the consequences of insecurity will affect all nations hence the imperative for concerted cooperation and collaboration of all nations to overcome these challenges.”
However, no sooner had the president made his call, a former senator representing Kaduna Central, Mr Shehu Sani, faulted the call for the United States to relocate AFRICOM from Germany to Africa.
Faulting the president’s call for AFRICOM’s relocation to Africa, Shehu Sani said such calls represent an open invitation for the recolonisation of the continent.
According to the former lawmaker, other foreign players will follow suit leading to the military balkanisation of the continent.
“The President’s call for World powers military HQ on African soil is an open invitation for recolonisation of Africa. It’s easier to tell and get them to come and when they come, it’s impossible to tell and get them to go out,” he said.
“Once the US relocates their HQ to Africa, Russia, China, Iran, Saudia, Israel, and co would follow suit with establishing their Commands HQs, and then Africa will be militarily balkanised; then we either become like Korea or like Syria. Over six decades since Independence, African countries should purposefully work together to confront & address their security challenges, while honourably seeking foreign technical assistance. The call for the US to relocate its @USAfricaCommand HQ to Africa is unconscionable.”
Is Shehu Sani right in his assessment of the situation and the call made by the president for relocation of AFRICOM to Africa? Since the 1990s and notably after 9/11 and the establishment of AFRICOM, the U.S. military has often been the most visible and concrete symbol of U.S. commitment to the region.
U.S. global leadership is predicated on its networks of alliances and partners. These relations are essential to opening markets for the U.S. private sector, countering malign behaviour by China and Russia and shaping decisions at international forums, including the U.N. Security Council.
While U.S. embassies in Africa appears to be understaffed for decades, the U.S. military presence has increased, serving as a crucial signal to African partners that the United States is a steadfast ally.
For example, most African countries rarely receive visits from the president, vice president, secretary of state or even senior officials from other departments. U.S. presidents have visited only 16 out of the 54 countries in Africa, making repeated stops in a handful of countries.
In contrast, AFRICOM’s senior leaders travel to the continent more often and to more countries than anyone else in the U.S. government. Interactions with U.S. military officials are the key diplomatic relationships in Africa outside of the embassy.
Such interactions are often an African leaders’ highest-level connection to the U.S. government, and they are what many African governments view as the most reliable form of U.S. engagement.
However, regardless of the arguments for or against the relocation of the headquarters of AFRICOM, the need to arrest the declining state of security in Nigeria and Africa, in general, cannot be overemphasised. Therefore, African leaders and, in particular President Muhammadu Buhari, can lead the way for the adaptation of AFRICOM to truly make it serve the interests of Africa and its people.
To realise that objective, AFRICOM and, indeed, the U.S. authorities, can be made to support longer-term efforts to prevent violent extremism and all forms of insecurity from taking place in the first place.
The United States can help partners set up joint operations centres where, in real-time, the U.S. military can showcase how intelligence-driven operations reduce accidents, lower civilian casualties and foster information sharing (including with vigilantes and police) that saves lives.
Above that, the U.S. can do more to promote open dialogues with communities on threats and prevention strategies. If the United States wants to reduce the threat of terrorism in Africa, partnerships need to be much more than just limited counterterrorism objectives.
In many African contexts, including Nigeria before President Muhammadu Buhari came to power, terrorists easily step in to establish themselves as a viable alternative to the government when those in power are corrupt, venal and direct security forces to kill and abuse civilians for political gain.
In those cases, the U.S. military’s most effective intervention is assisting partner nations to improve their behaviour and rebuild trust. Because when U.S. forces support efforts to repair the broken bonds of governance and positively impact the behaviour of African security forces, it reinforces the idea that the state’s job is to protect people, instead of going after them. And that might end up being the most potent type of counterterrorism the United States can ever help Nigeria and the rest of Africa with.