Alexandra Hays/U.S. Army

World News


Helping Africa Develop Security Self-Reliance

When Army General Carter Ham told the House Armed Services Committee in 2012 that AFRICOM was aiming for a “light footprint” in Africa, he was reading from official script. Indeed, AFRICOM, the U.S. African Command, responsible for American military operations in Africa, isn’t even based in Africa, but rather in Stuttgart, Germany. But when Islamic militants killed four members of a U.S. special operations team in Niger two years ago, questions about the size and shape of American involvement in Africa broke onto the front page. With those questions came a search for the smartest, most economical ways for America to partner with friends on the world’s second-largest and second-most-populous continent. This meant helping African nations to help themselves.

America’s best shot at helping African nations foster self-reliance might well lie in maximizing the value of Western-supplied assets already in place. One example is the fleet of high-speed patrol boats and interceptors that Mozambique purchased from the global shipbuilder Privinvest several years ago. Built in French shipyards, these state-of-the-art craft have been gathering dust on the shore in Maputo since they were delivered three years ago while Mozambique’s government litigates its debt terms with European creditors. That’s a shame. These are exactly the kind of defensive vessels that can help nations such as Mozambique improve their self-reliance and ease AFRICOM’s burden in the region. The stakes are high: If African self-reliance cannot be fostered, the Chinese have proven they will be there to fill the vacuum.

In the meantime, the complexities of security challenges that overlap with U.S. interests across Africa have led to an estimated quarter-billion dollar budget this year and American military presence in as many as 34 sites on the continent. The biggest of these is the naval expeditionary base at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti from which the U.S. supports a range of operations, including anti-piracy efforts in the Indian Ocean.

For the U.S. Navy, Africa is an in-between region of operations, drawing resources from both the Fifth Fleet, tasked primarily with the Middle East and the Sixth Fleet, which guards the Mediterranean and Europe. Earlier this year, the Navy held Operation Cutlass Express, a joint exercise with regional partners that covered the African coast from Djibouti to the Mozambique Channel.

AFRICOM and Cutlass Express are more than attempts at world policing. They protect vital U.S. interests. The U.S. energy company Anadarko has started work on an estimated $12 billion gas development project off the northern coast of Mozambique. But the U.S. cannot and should not do it all. What is needed, as U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton said in a strategy statement last year, is African “self-reliance.” The need is pressing.

After the U.S. established Camp Lemonnier, China followed suit with its own, mysterious naval installation nearby, its first base outside of Asia. There were even reports of the Chinese targeting U.S. military aircraft with blinding lasers from their new base. Africa has become one of China’s major export markets for armaments, suggesting that its goals have less to do with fostering stability and open markets, which are the U.S.’s stated objectives in Africa. Chinese fishing fleets pilfer African waters virtually unchecked.

In June, the Trump administration unveiled its “Prosper Africa” program in Mozambique’s capital of Maputo. One observer noted that America has a lot of catching up to do if it intends to go toe-to-toe with the Chinese there. Indeed, the massive hotel complex where the conference was held was built by China under a concessionary arrangement that has left the Mozambicans deeply indebted to China.

Unlike in China, the U.S. does not seek dominance in Africa. But it does want to see African countries better able to secure their own territories, both on land and offshore. Unless the American taxpayer wants to see AFRICOM’s annual budget grow toward the billion-dollar mark, U.S. corporations and policymakers would be wise to encourage creative paths to self-reliance in Africa wherever they might be found. Mozambique already has a head start.