AFRICOM Hearings Illustrate Fears and Inconsistencies

Before August recess on Capitol Hill, both the House and the Senate found it pertinent to squeeze in two hearings on AFRICOM. Amidst voting bells and frantic lobbyists, Senators from the Foreign Relations Committee and Representatives from the House Subcommittee on Africa sat down to hear testimony from officials and non-governmental experts on the creation of a new US military command for Africa. Senator Feingold and Representative Payne presided over the hearings and expressed general support for an African command, though both articulated fears and skepticism about its design.

By most accounts, the jury is still out. Many members of Congress…

By most accounts, the jury is still out. Many members of Congress, NGO’s, and academics do see a value in a consolidated US command in Africa from a military standpoint, though the slated goals of counterterrorism and resource extraction do not bode well in light of America’s past follies. Critics are particularly concerned about both its reach into the realm of development and the seeming shift to militarization of Africa policy. Unfortunately, no one seems to have all of the facts straight and the hearings last week were wrought with inconsistencies. Thus, Congress and the NGO community in Washington have a reason to be confused – we can only hope that it is not too late to help shape AFRICOM into a positive force for change on the African continent.

Voices from the media in Africa are largely negative, fearing the “destabilization of an already fragile continent” and warning that Africa ought to “be careful” after seeing the “scars of others (Afghanistan and Iraq)”. The Defense and State Departments have argued otherwise: that the response they have received from officials on the continent has been “generally positive” and that they have heard very few wary responses. The opinion of Congress lies somewhere in between, stating that the feedback they have received from Africa is “very skeptical” but acknowledging statements from officials such as Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in Liberia who came out in full public support of AFRICOM.

Ms. Theresa M. Whelan, Deputy Assistant Secretary for African Affairs at the Department of Defense (DoD), towed a solid line last week at both hearings. She insisted that African countries have been suitably briefed, that they have been amicable to the idea of AFRICOM, and that the cooperation between DoD, USAID and the State Department (DoS) has been sufficient. And while she attempted to enlighten both the House and the Senate with a more holistic understanding of AFRICOM’s operations, she fell short of convincing anyone that the command is adequately structured. As Representative Payne said, “all we hear is that DoD is taking over USAID.” Payne also made it very clear that the House Subcommittee onAfrica had not been fully informed of AFRICOM’s creation and that he first heard about the command from the newspaper.

Dr. Wafula Okumu of the Institute for Security Studies in South Africa provided the strongest outcry of opposition, insisting that AFRICOM will “do more harm than good.” He gave several examples of the distaste for a military command among civil society in Africa and gave the overall impression that it is very unfavorable in Africa. His recommended solution was to fully inform civil society and government in Africaso that there is no misunderstanding about the roles and responsibilities of AFRICOM. Okumu suggested that the African Union and African governments be in full agreement before AFRICOM is placed on the continent. He also encouraged theUnited States to fulfill its other slated duties to the continent – to fully fund the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) and the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), among others. Several other witnesses echoed Okumu’s sentiments, regarding African needs and concerns as most important.

At the House-side hearing, Representative John Boozman expressed support for AFRICOM and the idea that if the command focuses on development and aid, the American military might be seen as givers instead of takers. However, he, along with most other members of Congress, is concerned that AFRICOM has yet to take shape and that there is work to be done regarding the structure of the command. Indeed, there is much work to be done among the NGO and faith-based community to ensure that the United States practices a responsible, well-planned, and fair military policy in Africa. Though it may be too late to stop the command entirely, we do have a role to play in advocating for a command that will do the least harm to our brothers and sisters in Africa.

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