04/10/07 (B415) BBC : La controverse au sujet de la création et de l’implantation du futur centre de commandement américain pour l’Afrique : AFRICACOM. The controversy over Africom (En Anglais – Info lectrice)

By Daniel Gordon
BBC World Service’s Analysis programme

US Africa Command – a unit designed to run all of America’s military operations in Africa – opened for business this month.

Africom takes over the work currently done by three different command centres, all of them based outside Africa. While it is stationed in Germany for now, there has been a hostile reaction from many African countries to the idea of such a major US military installation moving onto African soil.

Many crucial details about how it is meant to work are still unclear. It has not yet been revealed, for example, where its headquarters will be.

And the fact that so much is still under wraps is fuelling the suspicion about what it is intended for.

Militarised society?

The Bush administration insists there’s nothing sinister about the Africom initiative.

According to US Under-Secretary of Defence Ryan Henry, it amounts merely to the redeployment of a few hundred personnel.

"Today we have the European Command, the Central Command and the Pacific Command, that deal with Africa," he says.

"All we’re doing is realigning that to put it under a single commander, so that we have somebody who is making an attempt to work with Africans on a day-in and day-out basis, rather than three different commanders who have their priorities in other places."

President Bush says Africom will not only improve security, but will also promote development, health, education, democracy and economic growth in Africa.

But not everyone is convinced.

Salim Lone, a columnist for a daily newspaper in Kenya, believes the creation of Africom is a milestone in US foreign policy – and that the fact Mr Bush is advertising it as a kind of panacea for Africa proves that the only future engagement the US plans for Africa is a military one.

"It will militarise society," he says.

"The military now is going to be working with civil society, to promote health and education.

"Africa is going to look at all its development efforts through the lens of the Pentagon. That’s a truly dangerous dimension. We don’t need militarisation of Africa, we don’t need securitisation of aid and development in Africa."

Indian influence

He is convinced America’s goal is not development, but resources such as oil, timber, cobalt and uranium.

And he is not the only one who views Africom unfavourably.

Morocco, Algeria and Libya are all reported to have refused US requests to base the command centre on their soil, while South Africa has been actively discouraging support for the idea amongst its neighbours.

We have somebody who is making an attempt to work with Africans on a day-in and day-out basis, rather than three different commanders who have their priorities in other places

Helmut Heitman, the South Africa Correspondent of Jane’s Defence Weekly, is less sceptical. He thinks the earnest claims made by the US about its intentions in Africa can be taken at face value – for now at least.

"What they’re saying at the moment – that it’s primarily a security, assistance and training focus, is probably true," he says.

"They’re still building up their knowledge base. I don’t see them rushing into Africa with large combat forces or anything. This is a contact building exercise that will be extended if necessary."

Mr Heitman adds, however, that he can see an emphasis on countering both the growing Chinese influence in Africa, and the potential Indian influence there too.

But he points out that the objections raised by African countries are about more than protecting their national sovereignty.

"There’s a general negativity among African countries that don’t function all that cleanly towards Europe and America – they much prefer the Chinese version of ‘here’s the money, do what you like’," he says.

"South Africa has reacted negatively, but not for that reason. South Africa has never liked Washington much, because it sees itself as a regional power, and doesn’t want anyone else to tell it what to do."

Expanding interests

Not all of Africa is against Africom. Many states are waiting for more details to be made public before they declare where they stand.

And the project does have its backers. Liberia has offered to host the headquarters on its territory.

President Ellen Johnston Sirleaf calls it a model for the future: helping governments that are willing to help themselves.

Africa analyst Brett Schaeffer of the Heritage Foundation in Washington puts the objections down to a public relations failure on the part of the US.

"Because the US was so hesitant in announcing the details, it allowed people to fill the void with these conspiracy theories which don’t have any basis on which to come to their conclusions," he says.

"All the US can do is explain clearly what role it sees for Africom – which I see as very positive."

Meanwhile, Helmut Heitman says the US is not the only foreign power trying to secure its grip on the region; the difference is others are more covert in the way they’re going about it.

"I think China, India and to a lesser extent Brazil will try to expand their interests in Africa," he says.

"But they won’t do things as obviously. I think they will only be indirectly involved militarily, by supporting their favoured government, opposition group or warlord."