Obama and U.S. Military Engagement in Africa

When Barack Obama took office as president of the United States in January 2009, it was widely expected that he would dramatically change, or even reverse, the militarized and unilateral national security policy toward Africa that had been pursued by the Bush administration. But, after a little more than one year in office, it is clear that the Obama administration is essentially following the same policy that has guided US military involvement in Africa for more than a decade. Indeed, it appears that President Obama is determined to expand and intensify US military engagement throughout Africa.

Thus, in its budget request for the State Department for the 2010 financial year, the Obama administration proposed significant increases in funding for US arms sales and military training programmes for African countries, as well as for regional programmes on the continent, and is expected to propose further increases in its budget request for the 2011 financial year.

The 2010 budget proposed to increase foreign military funding spending for Africa by more than 300 per cent, from just over US$8.2 million to more than US$25.5 million, with additional increases in funding for North African countries. Major recipients included Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Liberia, Morocco, Nigeria and South Africa.

The 2010 State Department budget request also proposed increased funding for several other security assistance programmes in Africa, including the African Contingency Operations and Training Assistance programme (which is slated to receive US$96.8 million), the International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement programmes in Algeria, Cape Verde, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Morocco, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Sudan and Uganda, anti-terrorism assistance programmes in Kenya and South Africa, and the Africa regional programme.

The same is true for funding in the Defense Department budget for the operations of the new Africa Command (AFRICOM) which became fully operational in October 2008 and the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) forces, which have been stationed at the US military base in Djibouti since 2002. The Obama administration requested US$278 million to cover the cost of AFRICOM operations and Operation Enduring Freedom-Trans-Sahara Counter-Terrorism Partnership operations at the AFRICOM headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany. The administration also requested US$60 million to fund CJTF-HOA operations in 2010 and US$249 million to pay for the operation of the 500-acre base at Camp Lemonier in Djibouti, along with US$41.8 million for major base improvement construction projects. And the administration is now considering the creation of a 1,000-man Marine intervention force based in Europe to provide AFRICOM with the capability to intervene in Africa.

The continuity with Bush administration policy is especially evident in several key regions. In Somalia, for example, the Obama administration has provided some US$20 million worth of arms to the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and initiated a major effort to provide training to TFG troops at the CJTF-HOA base in Djibouti and in Europe. Furthermore, President Obama has continued the programme initiated by the Bush administration to assassinate alleged al-Qaeda leaders in Somalia and, in August 2009, he authorised an attack by US Special Forces units that killed Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, who was accused to being involved in the bombing of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania by al-Qaeda in August 1998.

In the Sahel, the Obama administration has also sought increased funding for the Trans-Saharan Counter-Terrorism Program (US$20 million in 2010) and begun a special security assistance programme for Mali to provide the country with some US$5 million of all-terrain vehicles and communications equipment. Administration officials have justified this escalating military involvement in the Trans-Saharan region by arguing that the increasing involvement of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in criminal activity (including kidnapping for ransom and drug-trafficking) constitutes a growing threat to US interests in this resource-rich area.

In Nigeria, which supplies approximately 10 percent of US oil imports, the Obama administration has decided to expand US military support to Nigerian military forces, despite concerns about security in the Niger Delta, Islamic extremism in northern Nigeria and the country’s fragile democratic institutions. Thus, during her visit to Nigeria in August 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton promised that the administration would consider any request by the Nigerian government for military support to enhance its capacity to repress armed militants in the Niger Delta region. The failure of the Nigerian government to implement major elements of its amnesty programme in this vital oil-producing area has recently led to a resumption of violent incidents and attacks on oil installations in the Niger Delta.

In Central Africa and the Horn of Africa, the Obama administration is increasing security assistance to Uganda, Rwanda, the Kenya, Ethiopia and other countries in the region, and has conducted major training exercises both in Uganda and in Djibouti for the new East African Standby Force (EASF). The EASF is a battalion-sized force authorised by the African Union for independent African peacekeeping operations and other missions, but it remains dependent upon external support – especially from the United States – and is not expected to be able to operate on its own for many years to come. And in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Obama administration has just authorised the deployment of US Special Forces troops to train an infantry battalion at a base at Kisangani that was recently rehabilitated by the United States. The Obama administration has chosen to engage in this training programme despite the continuing involvement of Congolese troops in gross human rights violations (including the rape and murder of civilians) and in the illegal exploitation of the country’s mineral resources.

This growing US military engagement in Africa reflects the Obama administration’s genuine concerns about the threat posed by Islamic extremism and by instability in key resource-producing regions, and its desire to help resolve conflicts throughout the continent. However, all these measures increase the militarisation of Africa and tie the United States even more closely to unstable, repressive and undemocratic regimes. Furthermore, despite President Obama’s rhetorical commitment to an approach that combines military and non-military activities, the administration lacks a comprehensive and effective plan to address the underlying issues – the lack of democracy and economic development – that lead to extremism, instability and conflict in Africa.

This is chiefly because the Obama administration lacks the diplomatic and economic means to address these issues. The State Department and the Agency for International Development have been systematically starved of funding and other resources for years and simply lack the capacity to engage in Africa in the manner that would make such an effort possible. It will take many years and substantial increases in funding to build this capacity. And the Obama administration’s food security programme – its one major new initiative for Africa – is highly problematic since it relies on the use of expensive petroleum-based fertilizers, the mechanisation of agricultural production and the use of genetically-modified seeds.

In the meantime, President Obama has decided that he has no choice except to rely primarily on military instruments and to hope that this can protect US interests in Africa, at least in the short term, despite the risk that this military engagement will exacerbate existing threats. The Obama administration would be well advised to curtail its military engagement in Africa and devote its attention to developing the capacity for diplomatic and economic efforts to address Africa’s underlying problems (as Joint Chief of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen argued in a recent speech) and to working with the European Union, China and other stakeholders on a cooperative engagement with Africa that will not further undermine African security and jeopardise America’s long-term interests.

Daniel Volman is the director of the African Security Research Project in Washington DC and a member of the board of directors of the Association of Concerned Africa Scholars. He is a specialist on US military policy in Africa and African security issues and has been conducting research and writing on these issues for more than 30 years.