The New Scramble for Africa
Earlier this year, a fitness tracking application named Strava made the headlines for revealing the potential locations of military bases around the world. While Strava Global “heatmap” doesn’t reveal the identities of its users, their repeated circular routes – in the middle of the Somali desert, around Kenyan airports, or in proximity of active conflict zones in the Sahara – make the possibility of them being regular civilians’ jogging routes highly unlikely. The disclosure of the location of hundreds of potential military bases all around the globe represents an important threat to the sustenance of ongoing military operations, the security of American troops abroad and military personnel from around the world.
However, the “heatmap” also shines a light – literally – on one of the no longer best kept U.S. secrets: dozens of military bases all across Africa: from Douala, Cameroon to Mombasa, Kenya. According to documents acquired through the Freedom of Information Act, the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) had at least 36 outposts across 24 countries in Africa as of 2015.
Today, the number of outposts could be well above 40 according to an AFRICOM Spokesperson. These include “Forward Operating Sites” which are permanent military bases, “Cooperative Security Locations” in collaboration with the host country’s local military, and “Contingency Locations” which are temporary bases. This number is far from the common claim of having only one military base in Africa, Camp Lemonnier, in Djibouti, acquired from France following the September 11 attacks, in an effort to combat terrorism in the region. While Camp Lemonnier has the capacity of 4,000 military personnel, the number of military personnel deployed across the other “secret” bases is unknown, but most likely is in the hundreds.
Not only is U.S. military capability in Africa expanding, other countries are developing their military abroad. China announced on January 21st 2016 it had planned to open a military outpost in Djibouti, the first Chinese military base beyond the South China Sea. Six weeks after China first announced this initiative, Saudi Arabia declared its intention to open a base in Djibouti. Additionally, France has dozens of military bases across the continent, which is in big part because of its colonial past on the continent. Earlier this year, in November 2017, the United Arab Emirates announced it will set a naval base in the port Berbera in self-proclaimed Somaliland. France, Spain, Japan, Turkey, China and the U.S. all have major military bases in Djibouti. The fundamental question therefore becomes: why such an increase in foreign military presence across Africa?
The Scramble for Africa refers to the 1884 Berlin conference where the continent was partitioned by European colonial powers. Stretches of land across the Mediterranean were given to countries to settle political and economic contention between countries in Europe. Today’s foreign involvement in African countries, whether it is interest-free loans, humanitarian intervention, or international aid in order to expand military capabilities on foreign soils – ultimately taking advantage of weaker states – has caused many to call this the ‘New Scramble for Africa.’
Djibouti, a small country of just 9,000 square miles, has been called the “nexus of international trade” because of its strategic location on the horn of Africa, at the crossroad between Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Djibouti is situated just a few miles south from the Suez-Aden canal and Bab El Mondal, one of the most precarious oil chokepoints in the world, accounting for 11% of the oil trade – approximately 3.8 millions barrels a day. The Gulf of Aden is strategic in China’s new initiative to recreate the historic Silk Route, One Belt, One Road, with more than one billion dollars’ worth of exports to Europe through the Gulf and the Suez Canal. The Chinese base can also enable the evacuation of the millions of Chinese who live in Africa and the Middle-East. As far as U.S. interests, Djibouti oversees six other drone-launching stations across the continent, essential in taking down Boko Haram in Nigeria, Al Shabaab in Somalia, and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
It is clear that both the U.S. and China have geopolitical stakes in having military capabilities in Djibouti, mainly to take on counter-terrorism and counter-piracy missions, but it seems there is also a more realist perspective at stake. Journalist Ayo Johnson has argued that Africa is becoming a staging ground from which foreign countries can “show their muscles and their military capabilities against one another.” According to David Shedd, former Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, the reason for the Djibouti project can simply be defined “as being seen” to “signal the world they have a worldwide presence.”
Indeed, China’s interest has been ignored in the past, especially during the Libyan intervention of Western forces, where one billion dollars of Chinese investments were destroyed and 35,000 Chinese citizens had to be evacuated. According to political analyst Lai Yueqian, the Chinese outpost in Djibouti “can be used to pin down the United States and any U.S.-led organizations, and if [the U.S.] wants to intervene against China’s interests, they will have to think carefully, because China will use their military to protect their citizens and their property.” China’s choice in expanding its military in Djibouti showcases their ambition of contesting U.S. centric interventions.
It seems the new scramble for Africa is reminiscent of its colonial predecessor, the Berlin Conference of 1884, where political settlement and competition was settled on foreign soils, at the expense of its inhabitants. This increases the likelihood of the continent of Africa becoming the center ground for new iterations of proxy wars between established and expanding powers. At the end of the day, the weight of the consequences of such heightened tensions between powers will fall upon African countries, in which foreign military presence often creates antagonist relationships, grievances and protests as well as participating indirectly in the recruitment effort of terrorism organizations. As said in an Al-Jazeera documentary: “Imperialism has taken another form, it has evolved. What this not change is the power dynamics between strong and the weak.”