The United States launched a deadly air attack against Somalia last February, using the war on terror as a pretext. The bombings, which killed scores of civilians, were in support of an Ethiopian invasion to oust a Somalieregime composed of “Islamic militants” considered hostile to Ethiopia and reportedly sought by the United States.
A convergence of Ethiopian and American interests provoked the air attack that helped rout this leadership, the so-called Islamic Courts movement, and endangered thousands of Somali lives. But it failed to turn-up the targeted Islamic militants. Continuing attempts to flush them out has produced what some critics have called an “African Guantánamo.”
According to an April 5 Associated Press story, “human rights groups say hundreds of prisoners, including women and children, have been transferred secretly and illegally to the prisons in Ethiopia” and interrogated by CIA and FBI agents. The bombings were part of “an on-going operation of air strikes in southern Somalia” to support Ethiopia’s struggle against fighters tied to al-Qaeda, a Pentagon spokesman said in explaining the deadly attacks. For five years, the U.S. military has operated a regional task force based in Djibouti designed ostensibly to prevent al-Qaeda sympathizers from gaining a foothold on the Horn of Africa. Last year, the Bush administration announced an enormous expansion of Camp Lemonier, the U.S. military base in Djibouti.
Perhaps the most amazing aspect of the Bush Administration’s bombing of Africa is the lack of any real public discussion in this country. The silence of African-American leadership is especially troubling. Aside from Rep. Donald Payne (D-N.J.), very few black politicians have even raised the issue. “I think the policy is wrong,” Payne told me when I asked him about the bombing of Somalia. It just “shows a misguided policy in Africa in particular, and the world in general,” he said.
John Prendergast and Colin Thomas-Jensen, two members of the International Crisis Group, argue in the March/April edition of Foreign Affairs that the Bush administration’s singular focus on stemming terrorism, “is overshadowing U.S. initiatives to resolve conflicts and promote good governance – with disastrous implications for regional stability and U.S. counterterrorism objectives themselves.”
And while the Greater Horn of Africa (which includes the Sudan, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya and Uganda) has attracted the most public attention, the U.S. also has operations in Algeria, Angola, Chad, Gabon, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal and other locations.
The U.S. military presence in Africa has been increasing for many years but wasn’t officially acknowledged until Feb. 7, when President George W. Bush announced a new Pentagon command for the entire continent called AFRICOM. The new command, scheduled to start operation by October 2008, “will strengthen our security cooperation with Africa and create new opportunities to bolster the capabilities of our partners in Africa,” Bush said.
AFRICOM eventually will encompass the entire continent – except Egypt – and include the islands of Cape Verde, Equatorial Guinea and São Tomé and Príncipe (in the Gulf of Guinea, where the United States is building another large base). This region will become increasingly important to the United States for reasons made clear in press reports on the AFRICOM proposal: “The U.S., the world’s biggest energy consumer, also hopes the Gulf of Guinea region in West Africa will provide up to a quarter of its oil imports within a decade.”
West Africa has about 60 billion barrels of proven oil reserves, and its oil is the low sulfur, sweet crude that petroleum refiners prize. Experts predict that one in every five new barrels of oil entering the global economy in the latter half of this decade will come from the Gulf of Guinea. Nigeria already supplies the U.S. with 10 percent of its imported oil and Angola 4 percent. The continent is also rich in bauxite, diamonds, gold, uranium and a stunning variety of other useful minerals.
The buildup of U.S. forces is often justified as necessary, both to fight the threat of terrorism and to counter growing instability in the continent’s resource-rich regions – to guard against so-called “failed states.”
China’s growing influence in Africa is another reason the United States is anxious to assert a military presence. The burgeoning economic growth of the world’s largest nation has produced a desperate need for Africa’s natural resources and a vigorous rivalry with the West for influence.
America’s new Africa initiatives are driven by the same concerns as the imperialism of the past: unrestricted access to the continent’s resources and geopolitical advantage over perceived enemies. Today it might be characterized as globalism with combat boots, though it’s the same old story with the well-worn plot of Western hegemony.
Once, the enemy was Communism; now it’s Terrorism. But the real enemy is an independent Africa.
Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor of In These Times and host of “The Salim Muwakkil Show” on radio station WVON-AM in Chicago. Muwakkil was also contributing columnist for both the Chicago Sun-Times (1993 – 1997) and the Chicago Tribune (1998 – 2005). He is also a co-founder of Pacifica News’ network daily “Democracy Now” program and served as an adjunct professor at Northwestern University, University of Illinois, the Art Institute of Chicago and Chicago’s Columbia College.