Increased American Military Presence May Undermine Good Governance Efforts in Africa

Gen. Odierno at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti.  Wikimedia Commons

Gen. Odierno at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti. Wikimedia Commons

Last weekend, Kenya’s preeminent newspaper The Nation, reported that CCTV footage showed Kenyan soldiers looting during the terrorist attack in Westgate Mall. The “Shame of Soldiers Looting Westgate,” as The Nation dubbed the footage, may be allegorical for increased American military involvement in Africa.

How is America’s military presence in Africa shifting?

Former counter-terrorism director for Africa at the Defense Department Rudolph Atallah notes that though the original design for American military presence in Africa was a small footprint “ that has dramatically changed over time,” to the extent that “Africa is front and center now for the Pentagon.”

The epicenter of American counter-terrorism and military operations in Africa is Camp Lemonnier, in Djibouti, just north of Somalia. Just last month, $200 million dollars in contracts to expand and improve upon the base’s facilities was doled out by defense officials as part of a 25 year expansion project projected to cost over $1 billion. Lemonnier’s geographic location has made it an increasingly appealing option for launching covert operations and drone strikes in the Arabian Peninsula and across Africa.

Though Lemonnier is among the most established of American military bases on the continent, declassified Pentagon documents show an increase in spending to revamp other bases. Notably, Navy engineers recently improved the runway at an American military base in Manda Bay, Kenya. Additionally, last month the Pentagon awarded a contract to a former subsidiary of Halliburton for support services at Manda Bay. Manda Bay will likely grow in importance in light of the Westgate Mall attack and seeming resurgence of Al Shabaab in Somalia.

What does Increased American Military Presence Mean for Governance in Africa?

Ironically, increased partnerships with the world’s foremost democracy may undermine the democratic process by reducing the importance of public opinion, increasing ‘rent seeking behavior’ in governments, and strengthening autocratic aspects of governments.

While the $38 million dollar-a-year price tag that accompanies the leasing of Lemonnier from Djibouti is a mere drop in the proverbial American defense budget bucket, that amount of money could have serious consequences in Djibouti. An impoverished country still recovering from a decade-long civil war that ended in near the turn of the millennium, Djibouti’s political system is still unstable and at times autocratic; in 2011, protests broke out denouncing governmental inertia. Increased American presence in Djibouti may undermine good governance in the country, as Guelleh’s long-standing government can find financial support from the United States’ defense programs within their borders, rather than from their citizens.

Increased American military spending in Kenya may serve to inflame ethnic tensions, especially if the benefits of this spending accrue disproportionately to one ethnic group. An increased presence in Kenya entails working with Uhuru Kenyatta. Kenyatta makes for a strange bed-fellow, as he is preparing to go on trial at the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity. A partnership with the American Military may lend legitimacy to Kenyatta’s regime, though he is accused of orchestrating a wave of ethnic violence that killed 1,200 citizens following the 2007 elections.

Hopefully the looting by Kenyan soldiers during the Westgate crisis will not serve as a microcosm of things to come. However the temptation to seize opportunities to increase individual security and wealth in an uncertain region may prove too difficult to overcome at all levels of society.

Hilary Matfess is an Institute for Policy Studies intern and a Johns Hopkins University student.