At BU, AFRICOM leader talks security, controversy

By Talia Whyte
Originally published in Bay State Banner

Gen. William E. Ward, commander of the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM), discussed the newly operational command’s accomplishments and future work at Boston University last Wednesday.

During his keynote speech at the university’s African Presidential Archives and Research Center (APARC), Ward also addressed concerns raised by opponents who are suspicious of the motives for establishing the military command.

Based at the Kelley Barracks in Stuttgart, Germany, AFRICOM is a military headquarters devoted solely to American military operations and security engagement with 53 African nations. The command was activated at an Oct. 1 ceremony held at the Pentagon. Prior to AFRICOM becoming fully operational, U.S. security matters in Africa were handled by military commands in Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

Some have expressed fears that the U.S. government plans to use AFRICOM to extend the war on terror into the African continent, and as part of efforts to suppress growing economic competition from China.

Not so, said Ward.

“AFRICOM is designed to address new military demands on the continent,” Ward said. “The challenges will require more than military expertise.”

Aiding in the response to those challenges will be a number of agencies that will lend a hand to AFRICOM’s work on the continent, including the Departments of Homeland Security and Commerce, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the United States Agency for International Development and several African nongovernmental organizations.

During his APARC speech, Ward stressed that building “partner capacity strategies” and working as a team will be critical in helping the organization to better support both African military personnel and civilians.

“AFRICOM is a listening and learning operation,” he said. “We will learn about the different cultures and change programs as appropriate. Our goal is to add value.”

Unlike other U.S. military commands around the world, AFRICOM will focus on preventing wars rather than fighting them, according to Ward. When asked about the possibility of U.S. military forces becoming involved in curbing the genocide in Darfur, Ward said that AFRICOM’s intent is not to make foreign policy decisions in Africa, as those decisions are made in Washington, but rather to make sure that AFRICOM’s duties “are in line with the United States and with our African partners.”

Just what those activities will be has become a matter of concern for some in the international community.

AFRICOM has come under scrutiny from activists for more than a year over the United States’ alleged attempts to militarize the continent in order to barricade it from extremists. Also, with China’s growing economic interests in Africa, opponents see AFRICOM as a means of protecting American trade interests, especially crude oil. Some recall Africa’s history as a target of European colonizers and a strategic bulwark during the Cold War, and are concerned that AFRICOM represents another form of imperialism being imposed by the West.

Opposition to the command has come from African government leaders in Mozambique, Botswana, Zambia, South Africa and Nigeria as well as U.S.-based civil society groups like the TransAfrica Forum and the Institute for Policy Studies. They argue that the U.S. government is not being transparent about its intentions for AFRICOM. Last year, Dr. Wafula Okuma, a research fellow at the Institute for Security Studies in South Africa, testified before Congress about the growing resistance and hostility toward AFRICOM on the continent.

“Many think the U.S. is very nervous of Chinese economic penetration into Africa,” Okuma testified. “America’s concern is that the Chinese are trying to control the continent’s natural resources and gain influence over it. The U.S. is also worried that radical Islamism is a dangerous idea that could germinate in poorly and badly governed states of Africa … AFRICOM is being sold as an answer to these threats.”

Some opponents have even suggested that African hostility toward the military command is the reason AFRICOM is based in Germany rather than on the continent.

A coalition of activists staged a protest against AFRICOM in Washington, D.C., on Monday during the conference of the International Peace Operations Association, where opponents believe contractors will discuss opportunities for making money off the Pentagon’s new military venture.

“The principles of imperialism on which AFRICOM stands are unmistakable,” said protest organizer Tsetsi Kgama in a recent e-mail message. “With a history marked by the traumas of slavery and colonialism, Africa deserves a foreign policy that respects self-determination and self-governance. Now is the time to dismantle AFRICOM and to condemn U.S. military presence in Africa.”

Responding to these concerns during last Wednesday’s speech, Ward said that “there is no hidden agenda” behind AFRICOM, reiterating that the command exists solely to assist the United States’ African military partners, and assured attendees that it is not being used to fend off Chinese advances.

As for AFRICOM’s home in Germany, Ward said African resistance is not the top reason for making a location decision and that while Liberia has offered to host the command, the command will be based in Germany for the “foreseeable future.” The Kelley Barracks site is near the United States Europe Command, also known as EURCOM, allowing staff from both commands to work together during the transition.

Ward said he has high hopes for AFRICOM’s prospects.

“We are making a difference,” he said. “We are improving security on the continent.”

Many audience members were still uncertain about AFRICOM’s prospects but were glad to see the general make himself available to address the concerns.

The Rev. Richard Clarke, a Liberian and pastoral resident at Roxbury’s Charles Street A.M.E. Church, said that while some Africans support the AFRICOM venture, the U.S. government will have to prove opponents wrong by working to reverse its negative image on the continent.

“If [AFRICOM] survives, it will have to be truthful in its nature,” Clarke said. “America shouldn’t enforce its views on Africa, but rather work with Africans.”

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