Conn Hallinan / Dispatches from the Edge / Berkeley Daily Planet – 2007-04-08 18:24:06
BERKELEY, California (March 30, 2007) — When the Bush administration recently unveiled its new African military command — AFRICOM — Deputy Assistant Sec. of Defense Teresa Whalen said that the initiative was aimed at “promoting security, to build African capacity to build their own environments and not be subject to the instability that has toppled governments and caused so much pain on the continent.”
And yet hardly was the announcement made when the Bush administration organized the overthrow of the first stable government Somalia has had since 1991, stirring up a hornet’s nest of regional rivalries in the strategic Horn of Africa.
When the Ethiopian Army stormed across the border in late December to support the besieged and isolated Transitional Federal Government (TFG), it was accompanied by US Special Forces. The United States also provided the Ethiopians with “up-to date intelligence on the military positions of the Islamic figures in Somalia,” Pentagon and counterterrorism officials told the New York Times.
The target of the invasion was the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), which over the past year had brought a modicum of peace to the warlord-riven country. Since the poorly armed ICU militias were routed, fighting in the capital, Mogadishu, has sharply escalated.
The situation here [Mogadishu] is out of control,” Ali Said Omar, chair of the Center for Peace and Democracy, told the Guardian.
Al Qaeda in Africa?
The ostensible reason for US participation in the invasion was the ICU’s supposed association with al Qaeda, a charge that has never been substantiated. United States warplanes and ships shelled and rocketed parts of southern Somalia where, according to Oxfam and the UN Refugee Center, 70 civilians died and more than 100 were wounded.
But the White House’s plans for Africa reach far beyond the Horn, and are part of a general militarization of US foreign policy. A recent Congressional report found that “some embassies have effectively become command posts, with military personnel in those countries all but supplanting the role of ambassadors in conducting American foreign policy.”
The US is already pouring $500 million into its Trans-Sahel Counterterrorism Initiative that embraces Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria in North Africa, and nations boarding the Sahara including Mauritania, Niger, Mali, Mauritania, Chad and Senegal. The United States currently has a major base in Djibouti that houses some 1,800 troops and which played an important role in the Somalian invasion.
A major focus of AFRICOM will be the Gulf of Guinea, with its enormous oil reserves in Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Angola and the Congo Republic. It is estimated that by 2015, Africa will provide a quarter of all US oil imports.
Some of those countries are plagued by exactly the kind of “instability” that AFRICOM was created to deal with. A year ago, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) shut down one fifth of Nigeria’s oil production through a series of attacks on pumping stations and oil rigs.
“Though all the eyes of the public seem focused on the atomic ambitions of Iran, Nigeria is at the greatest risk of oil disruption today,” Peter Tertzakian, chief energy at ARC Financial Corporation told the Financial Times. Nigeria is the world’s eighth largest oil exporter.
General James L. Jones, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) supreme commander, says the US-dominated military alliance is “talking” about using its forces to protect oil tankers off the west coast of Africa and to provide security, according to the Associated Press, for “storage and production facilities in areas such as the oil-rich Niger Delta.”
NATO is doing more than talking. In June of last year, NATO troops stormed ashore at Vila Dos Espargos on the Cape Verde Islands. The war game modeled intervening in a civil war over energy resources.
If NATO were to “provide security” in the strategic Niger Delta, it would find itself in the middle of an enormously complex political situation that pits local people fighting for a bigger slice of the resource pie against corrupt elites allied with transnational oil giants like ExxonMobile, Chevron, Shell, France’s Total, and Italy’s ENI.
A spokesman for MEND, Jomo Gbomo, charged that “oil is the key concern of the United States in establishing its African command,” and warned “we will fight everyone who goes on the side of the Nigerian government, regardless of who.”
While the United States says its focus is on “terrorism,” Nicole Lee of TransAfrica, the leading African American organization focusing on Africa, says “This [AFRICOM] is nothing short of a sovereignty and resource grab.”
China, the US and the Struggle to Control Africa’s Oil
It’s also about the new energy-hungry kids on the block. China has invested $4 billion in the Nigerian oil infrastructure and is pouring money into Gabon, Angola and Chad. India, Malaysia and South Korea have also joined the oil rush, along with competing for copper from Zambia, platinum from Zimbabwe, timber from the Congo, and iron ore from South Africa.
In a strange reversal of the 19th century, former colonies are going head to head with their old masters in the race for raw materials.
The Bush administration has long considered the control of resources like oil to be a strategic issue. In 2001, Vice President Dick Cheney’s National Energy Policy Development Group recommended that the administration “make energy security a priority of our trade and foreign policy,” a blueprint the White House has religiously followed.
In 2002, the administration also rolled out its “West Point Doctrine,” which in essence said that the United States would not permit the development of a major economic, political or military competitor.
Both of these policies are increasingly running up against China, the fourth largest economy in the world. When the United States pressured the International Monetary Fund to withhold loans to Angola, the Chinese stepped in with $2 billion.
When the United States ringed the Sudan with sanctions over the humanitarian crisis in Darfur, China invested $4 billion in the East African country’s oil industry. Sudan may have the largest untapped reserves in Africa and exports about 200,000 barrels a day to China.
The Sudan is one of those places where the good guys and the bad guys seemed clearly etched. But up close, things are considerably more complex. The tragedy unfolding in Darfur is fueled in part by competition between nomads and agriculturalists. But it is also a proxy war between Sudanese elites in Khartoum as well as an arena for regional competition between Sudan, Chad, and Niger. Lost in the images we have of burned villages and destitute refugees is the issue of oil.
The vast bulk of Sudan’s oil is in its south, where a long-running civil war is currently dormant. But in 2011 the south will hold a referendum to decide whether it will remain part of Sudan or become independent.
Will western oil companies that pulled up stakes in the 1980s and decamped to Chad push southerners to vote for independence so they can move back in? Will Khartoum really accept a breakup of the country?
The bottom line is that Sudan, like Somalia, Nigeria, and most African countries, are complex places, where military solutions are likely to cause problems, not solve them. There is also fear, according to Nigerian journalist Dulue Mbachu, “that increased US military presence in Africa may simply serve to protect unpopular regimes that are friendly to its interests, as was the case during the Cold War, while Africa slips further into poverty.”
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