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America’s New Frontline
The US is bound by shared history to Africa. But much of that history has been a source of deep pain and conflict.
29 Sep 2009
Recently, there have been two significant developments which may define the relationship between the US and Africa for decades to come.
The first is a legacy of the Bush administration - Africom, a new military command for Africa which was formally launched in October 2008.
The second is the election of Barack Obama, a man with African roots, as US president.
Rageh Omaar travels to the US and through East and West Africa to investigate the American strategy for the continent and the role of Africom.
One of the new Africom programmes involves training forces in Rwanda. Today, Rwanda and the US have one of the closest military and diplomatic alliances on the continent. Not long ago, that would have seemed impossible.
In April 1994, the first genocide of the century in Africa began. Within 100 days, one-seventh of the population of Rwanda was killed.
One million people died. Despite desperate pleads for help, the West, the UN, and, most prominently, the self-proclaimed leader of the free world, the US, failed to act.
The killing was effectively brought to an end by the Rwanda Patriotic Front, a rebel force consisting largely of young Tutsi men and women.
Today, those rebels have become the official army of Rwanda.
Rwanda gets health and military training from Africom, and the US gets a loyal ally in a country whose neighbours, most notably the DR Congo, are unstable but rich in resources and minerals.
Djibouti is a small country in a very important strategic position. It became the headquarter of Africom and is now the largest permanent US camp in Africa.
In a village outside Djibouti, American military construction specialists are rebuilding a school roof as an example of an indirect approach to countering violent extremism.
Education, health and development are part of the mission, but it is a military operation and key to that is military training for the forces.
The difficulty for General Ward, the commander of Africom, and his command is that they can not control what those armies then do with that training.
Africom provided logistical and intelligence support to the Ugandan army (UPDF), which is strongly associated with Yoweri Museveni, the Ugandan president, who is criticised for his increasingly autocratic rule and growing restrictions on political freedom.
In July 2009, Obama promoted sustainable democracy, good governance and peaceful resolution of conflict for the African continent.
But despite these words, the US continues to train and work closely with Musevenis army, even though the armies they work with should be apolitical.
Africom is criticised for being created because of the American appetite for oil and natural resources and the so-called global war on terror.
For many Americans Somalia is linked to the military debacle known as Black Hawk Down. Hundreds of people died that day, including 18 US soldiers.
In Somalia, Rageh explores how the so-called war on terror created the very threat – a violent Jihadi movement - it claimed to be fighting.
In the Sahel, a region rich in mineral resources, Africom troops are providing arms, military support and training in response to a perceived extremist threat.
In Niger, resentment against the president, who changed the constitution so that he could stay in power, turned into open revolt in 2007. The Tuareg were denied a share of the Uranium riches taken from their land and were repressed by the autocratic president.
The Niger army remains a full member of the US anti al-Qaeda military training programme. But now those US-trained troops are likely to be turned against the local Tuareg.
For the governments in the region, from Niger to Algeria, the threat of terrorism can be a useful excuse for controlling dissent. Just as happened in Somalia, repression by the local regimes leads to resentment, anger and revolt.
The Delta region of West Africa provides Africom with its biggest dilemma. Rich in oil resources, the region is vital to future US energy needs.
Africom offers military training to local governments here – including Cameroonian troops involved in the brutal suppression of their own people.
Until rhetoric is seen to govern practice, Obama and Africom seem set to repeat past mistakes and become further involved in a messy, self-fulfilling prophecy.
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