The Softer Side of AFRICOM

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From the Jan-March 2011 Edition of Around Africa, by Melaura Homan-Smith, AFJN Staff

In 1961, just three days before John F Kennedy was inaugurated, President Eisenhower gave his historic farewell speech where he said: “We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.”  Fifty years later this poignant phrase has more than fulfilled his prediction. The effects of this  complex military behemoth are being felt at home and abroad.

AFRICOM, the US Africa military command, embodies the evolution of the armed forces’ mandate to secure American interests in Africa.  AFRICOM is not good for Africa.  Its detrimental effects, on many levels of society, may not be immediately apparent because AFRICOM has redoubled its public relations and communications efforts.  While there is a real need for security, what kind of security and provided by whom? The outcry in Africa among civil society voices was so negative that AFRICOM relocated its planned Headquarters from Africa to Stuttgart, Germany.  Rather than acknowledging that AFRICOM’s stated mission might be the cause of dissatisfaction, the Department of Defense blamed lack of understanding resulting from poor public relations.  In a paper titled “US Engagement in Africa: A Case Study in AFRICOM Strategic Communications,” three US Army officers “recommend methods for successful application of US messages” convincing various audiences that AFRICOM is beneficial to the US and Africa.

Considering that many regimes in Africa took power by means of military might at the expense of democratic process, AFRICOM’s partnership with them may make them complicit in atrocities and oppression they commit in the name of security.  This is consistent with the US’s tendency to ignore the indiscretions of dictatorial regimes while they serve US interests. For example, US forces and hired contractors were involved in training and arming Ugandan and Rwandan soldiers who participated in the brutal invasion war of the Democratic Republic of Congo from 1996-2003.  Had US forces or other agencies been tracking where these armed troops end up, perhaps the devastating war could have been mitigated.  The lack of accountability and nationality of trans-national contracting companies involved in such trainings is a huge problem. They pledge allegiance to the bottom line.

As if direct military involvement wasn’t enough, AFRICOM also has a broader “soft power and capacity building of allies” mandate. For example, AFRICOM’s Humanitarian Assistance team recently completed an $84,000 construction project for a special-needs school in Kano, northern Nigeria.  Anthony Holmes, AFRICOM’s deputy to the commander for civil-military activities, remarked at the school’s dedication: “Education is not a primary function of a U.S. military command or indeed any military, but in our approach to providing security in Africa we have adopted a broad spectrum that includes development and diplomacy.”  “We have adopted” this development and diplomacy, whereas international civilian organizations have conceived and done the best parenting research on strategies for strengthening civil societies.

So, why shouldn’t we support the military expressing its softer side?  First, because this is not a role for the military: US Ambassadors and the US Agency for International Development exist to handle development.  AFRICOM has been advising on Operation Enduring Freedom Trans Sahara (an “initiative to assist traditionally moderate Muslim governments . . . to combat the spread of extremist ideology and terrorism”) by sharing information and training ground soldiers in countering extremist ideology.  AFRICOM funds this “train, advise and assist” initiative in ten African countries.  Operation Objective Voice is the army’s foray into influencing the media against extremism, including starting a civilian-style blog.  This attempt to spread the premier American objective of preempting terrorism could serve to radicalize moderates by maintaining such an invasive military presence.  They are clearly just as guilty of spreading an ideology as any other group.

The presence of military personnel and war affects  more than just security issues.  Language and customs are changed.  Military terms are now adopted into common speech.  For example, in Sierra Leone it used to be that only trucks were “off-loaded” (first meant in the sense of being emptied, later to mean searched) at a security checkpoint. Now people, too, are off-loaded (frisked) at checkpoints or while being robbed on the street.  Even in our US English we have targets to aim at, bullet-points in presentations, and being missing in action, among thousands of other military words and phrases.  Steps to militarize culture and education in Africa will be, or perhaps already are, the next front for the “strategic communications” which will create an environment that makes Africans more comfortable with a continued military presence, be it of the US or their own.

AFRICOM is not what Africa needs.  So how could the US move forward with more helpful solutions?

  • Strengthening communications with African civil society organizations and listening to what they have to say.
  • Furthering the capacities of Africa’s regional organizations such as the African Union (AU), the Economic Community Of West African States (ECOWAS) for West Africa,  Southern African Development Community (SADEC) and others with genuine partnership.
  • Addressing the need for security with more local police forces, be they chiefdom police services or other local police agencies.
  • But most of all, America can start by guaranteeing and directing more funds to humanitarian development organizations and recognizing that a stabilized, healthy Africa which encourages accountable governments is good for everyone, even international business.

Speak up, speak out, break the silence!  Because, as Eisenhower said: “To strive for less would be unworthy of a free and religious people .”

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