AU summit 30: Should Africa worry about a growing foreign military presence?

By Peter Fabrucius, January 24, 2018

From ISS Africa

The United States in particular, but also France, have had a lot of flak for their military presence in Africa. However a surprising number of other foreign powers have quietly been putting boots on African soil over the past couple of decades, though attracting little attention.

Does the African Union (AU) endorse all this activity? Is it monitoring it? Is it concerned about it? And if not, should ordinary Africans be worried and demand action from the continental body?

Alex Vines, head of the Africa programme at Chatham House, discerns a ‘growing diversification of security partners’ on the continent. ‘In 2000, security in Africa meant mostly France, a bit of the US and some niche deployments such as Morocco (as presidential guard) and the United Nations (UN),’ Vines told ISS Today.

‘We now have Djibouti hosting many military bases. China in 2017 joins other recent arrivals in Djibouti with military facilities. Japan too has its only foreign military base there as do the Italians. Troops from Germany and Spain are hosted by the French, but the Russians failed to negotiate a partnership with the Chinese to share their facilities. India is also considering opening its own base in Djibouti, as is Saudi Arabia.’

But it isn’t only Djibouti that’s accepting new foreign military bases, he says. ‘In February 2017, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) secured agreement for a foreign military base in Somaliland, following its opening of a military facility in Eritrea in 2015. Turkey opened a military training base in Somalia in 2017.’ And now Russia is believed to be negotiating with Sudan to host the base it couldn’t establish in Djibouti. India has facilities in Mauritius and Madagascar ‘and would like to deepen its Seychelles presence’, says Vines. This ‘diversification of security partners will continue in 2018’, he says.

Meanwhile the familiar players retain a strong presence. ‘Obviously you also have the French, especially in the Sahel and Gabon and in its departments of Reunion and Mayotte,’ Vines says, noting that France remains the key foreign military power in Africa.

In 2017 the US marked a decade of Africom (US Africa Command) which stations some 4 000 troops at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, its only permanent base in Africa. Under the Trump administration, Africom has increased military strikes against violent Islamist extremists – mainly al-Shabaab in Somalia, Islamic State in Libya, and the likes of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in Niger.

Why this growing foreign military presence in Africa? ‘Africa’s insecurity is drawing in other nations,’ Vines believes.

Certainly that offers a plausible explanation for the presence of French, US and other European militaries that are largely focused on attacking violent Islamist extremists in West, North and East Africa. But they are also pursuing their own interests, says Annette Leijenaar, head of the Peace Operations and Peacebuilding programme at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS). Indeed the proliferation of foreign militaries in Africa has followed the growing commercial presence of those countries here, suggesting many are protecting their business interests.

The growing presence of Middle East militaries in the Horn of Africa is more complex, Omar Mahmood, a researcher at the ISS in Addis Ababa, explains. Much of it has to do with the clash between Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain on the one side; and Qatar on the other. The UAE’s Assab base in Eritrea, for example, is clearly part of its joint campaign with the Saudis against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels just across the Bab al-Mandab strait in Yemen.

Turkey is siding with Qatar in the big Gulf stand-off and its military base in Mogadishu – designed to train Somali soldiers – could well be connected with that conflict as Somalia remains neutral in the stand-off. The UAE has also opened a base in Mogadishu. Mahmood warns that African states are being sucked into Gulf conflicts as proxies, with few real national interests at stake.

Leijenaar is one of many expressing concern that the US and France, the two big players, are advancing their own interests, including in their fight against global terror, rather than those of the host African nations. These however are not necessarily mutually exclusive goals, Africom’s spokesperson Robyn Mack insists. She says its military strikes in Somalia and Libya are being conducted with the approval of the host governments, and in the interests of both the hosts and the US.

Whether the expanding foreign military presence amounts to the militarisation of responses to terrorism, or reflects the geopolitics of middle and superpowers in Africa, there will be implications for human security on the continent.

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