Obama’s Scramble for Africa Secret Wars, Secret Bases, and the Pentagon’s “New Spice Route” in Africa By Nick Turse
They call it the New Spice Route, an homage to the medieval trade network that connected Europe, Africa, and Asia, even if today’s “spice road” has nothing to do with cinnamon, cloves, or silks. Instead, it’s a superpower’s superhighway, on which trucks and ships shuttle fuel, food, and military equipment through a growing maritime and ground transportation infrastructure to a network of supply depots, tiny camps, and airfields meant to service a fast-growing U.S. military presence in Africa.
Few in the U.S. know about this superhighway, or about the dozens of training missions and joint military exercises being carried out in nations that most Americans couldn’t locate on a map. Even fewer have any idea that military officials are invoking the names of Marco Polo and the Queen of Sheba as they build a bigger military footprint in Africa. It’s all happening in the shadows of what in a previous imperial age was known as “the Dark Continent.”
In East African ports, huge metal shipping containers arrive with the everyday necessities for a military on the make. They’re then loaded onto trucks that set off down rutted roads toward dusty bases and distant outposts.
On the highway from Djibouti to Ethiopia, for example, one can see the bare outlines of this shadow war at the truck stops where local drivers take a break from their long-haul routes. The same is true in other African countries. The nodes of the network tell part of the story: Manda Bay, Garissa, and Mombasa in Kenya; Kampala and Entebbe in Uganda; Bangui and Djema in the Central African Republic; Nzara in South Sudan; Dire Dawa in Ethiopia; and the Pentagon’s showpiece African base, Camp Lemonnier, in Djibouti on the coast of the Gulf of Aden, among others.
According to Pat Barnes, a spokesman for U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), Camp Lemonnier serves as the only official U.S. base on the continent. “There are more than 2,000 U.S. personnel stationed there,” he told TomDispatch recently by email. “The primary AFRICOM organization at Camp Lemonnier is Combined Joint Task Force — Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA). CJTF-HOA’s efforts are focused in East Africa and they work with partner nations to assist them in strengthening their defense capabilities.”
Barnes also noted that Department of Defense personnel are assigned to U.S. embassies across Africa, including 21 individual Offices of Security Cooperation responsible for facilitating military-to-military activities with “partner nations.” He characterized the forces involved as small teams carrying out pinpoint missions. Barnes did admit that in “several locations in Africa, AFRICOM has a small and temporary presence of personnel. In all cases, these military personnel are guests within host-nation facilities, and work alongside or coordinate with host-nation personnel.”
In 2003, when CJTF-HOA was first set up there, it was indeed true that the only major U.S. outpost in Africa was Camp Lemonnier. In the ensuing years, in quiet and largely unnoticed ways, the Pentagon and the CIA have been spreading their forces across the continent. Today — official designations aside — the U.S. maintains a surprising number of bases in Africa. And “strengthening” African armies turns out to be a truly elastic rubric for what’s going on.
Under President Obama, in fact, operations in Africa have accelerated far beyond the more limited interventions of the Bush years: last year’s war in Libya; a regional drone campaign with missions run out of airports and bases in Djibouti, Ethiopia, and the Indian Ocean archipelago nation of Seychelles; a flotilla of 30 ships in that ocean supporting regional operations; a multi-pronged military and CIA campaign against militants in Somalia, including intelligence operations, training for Somali agents, a secret prison, helicopter attacks, and U.S. commando raids; a massive influx of cash for counterterrorism operations across East Africa; a possible old-fashioned air war, carried out on the sly in the region using manned aircraft; tens of millions of dollars in arms for allied mercenaries and African troops; and a special ops expeditionary force (bolstered by State Department experts) dispatched to help capture or kill Lord’s Resistance Army leader Joseph Kony and his senior commanders. And this only begins to scratch the surface of Washington’s fast-expanding plans and activities in the region.
Renewable energy is often thought of as an initiative of advanced, sane countries such as Portugal and Germany. But there is another arena where green energy is making an impact– on the lives of the world’s poorest populations, in the global South. For them, it is not a luxury or prudent planning for the future or a dutiful attempt to save the planet from the looming catastrophe of climate change fueled by humans pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Rather, it is a way of solving their present, low-tech energy crisis.
Kevin Bullis explains that many villagers use expensive kerosene for cooking and heating, and to fuel lamps for light. Cell phones have spread rapidly in Africa and Asia (where often there is no grid of copper wires or underground fiber optic cables and so mobile phone towers allow them to leapfrog to a newer technology). But given that many villagers do not have electricity, they have to take their phones to private charging centers and pay an arm and a leg for the recharging.
Both kerosene and the private charging stands can be replaced right now, in the present, with cheaper solar batteries. For light, solar-powered light-emitting diode (LED) panels are much cheaper than light bulbs powered by burning kerosene.
Even the Economist agrees that for the 1.6 billion human beings not already connected to the electrical grid, renewable energy is now cheaper for them than carbon-fueled electricity. Kenyan families, for instance, pay $10 a month for kerosene, and $2 a month to charge their cell phones. A British company is now allowing them to buy via an installment plan a solar set that costs them less than $12 a month, so that in 18 months they will own it. They can then, if they like, take some of their savings and get a larger solar set with more power generating ability.
In India, too, the poorest are getting access to solar cells. Since 2007, India has doubled its green power ability, from 10 gigawatts to 22 gigawatts. It may be investing more in research on renewable energy than any other nation. In 2011, India put $10 billion into this sector.
Likewise, Nicaragua’s commitment to green energy is such that that Central American country is hoping to get almost all its electricity from renewables by 2016. Admittedly, it will accomplish a good deal of this goal with a traditional hydro-electric generating plant rather than primarily with wind and solar. But the latter are an important part of the energy mix in Nicaragua. Going green is not only cheaper than increasingly expensive oil, but has other benefits as well. It discourages villagers from burning down the forest for wood to burn.
It is likely that the cost of solar power generation will cross with that of hydrocarbons sometime in the next 5-10 years, even for the advanced countries. Because they dont’ have a built-out grid and because even an electric light is expensive for them, the villagers of the global South are pioneers of the new, renewable world.
At Twitter we read, “@feb17voices: LPC #Misrata: No casualties from intense attack by Gaddafi forces but extensive damage to steel factory area, gas storage tanks. #Libya”. I think a lot of people did not know that there is a steel factory in Misrata, nor that a lot of the
‘rebels’ against Qaddafi in that city are workers. And now the regime is spitefully destroying their livelihood and bombarding their families. (@feb17voices is an innovative technology that lets Libyans with telephone access phone in their tweets, run by John Scott-Railton, who did the same thing for Egyptians when the regime cut off their internet.)
At the same time, three leaders from the African Union arrived for talks in Tripoli, and Qaddafi said at least that he accepted their proposals. The AU team will now go on to Benghazi for talks with the Transitional Governing Council, which has in the past rejected any plan that leaves Qaddafi or his sons in power.
The problem with having the AU mediate is that the leaders chosen are not viewed by the rebels as honest brokers.
While the world has not been paying attention, Qaddafi has been using his oil wealth (and I do mean ‘his’) to peddle influence in Africa, to gain the loyalty of it leaders, and to intervene militarily.
Far away from his own territory, Qaddafi spread terror through his terrorist training camp, the World Revolutionary Center. Out of it came a cadre of coup- and war-makers hungry for blood diamonds, including Charles Taylor of Liberia and Foday Sankoh of Sierra Leone. Qaddafi and Taylor intervened in the Sierra Leone war. Hundreds of thousands were killed in these conflicts provoked in part by Qaddafi’s ambitious attempt to foster a generation of authoritarian, reactionary revolutionaries in his own mold, who would be his clients. Having billions in oil money allowed him to undermine security and to play favorites in West African politics.
Qaddafi came out strongly against the revolution against Zine El Abedine Ben Ali in Tunisia. It seems certain that if he could get back into power and regain his riches, Qaddafi would try to undermine the outbreak of unwelcome democracy and a rule of law in Tunisia, his neighbor, and he has fingers into Egypt, as well. The terminally naive supporters of this billionaire serial murderer and his billionaire playboy sons who are firing indiscriminately on civilians said that no, Qaddafi would never do anything like that. What do they think he has been up to in Africa for the past 30 years? If he can be gotten out of power and the Benghazi government can establish a parliamentary system, not only Libya but all Africa will have achieved a great step forward.
The headlines are that Qaddafi has accepted the AU offer of a ceasefire and peacekeeping forces. It would be all to the good if he recalled his tanks and artillery and stopped hitting out indiscriminately at civilians in his cities. It is easier to get to peace from a ceasefire than from active war. Qaddafi’s bloodstained past and many murders require that UN allies in NATO and Arab League exercise the utmost vigilance that he is not just using the diplomacy as a cover to expand his territory and kill more people.
Christopher Anzalone writes in a guest column for Informed Comment:
The Somali insurgent movement Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen (Movement of Warrior-Youth) has controlled nearly all of southern and central Somalia since 2009 and was in the process of consolidating its authority when the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), aided by Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG) troops and fighters from the Somali Sufi militia Ahlul Sunna Wal Jamaacah, launched a major military offensive against them in mid February. As fierce fighting continues in the capital Mogadishu and the surrounding Banaadir district as well as border areas with Ethiopia and Kenya, it remains to be seen how the movement’s attempts at constructing the basic governing structures will fare.
The control and governance of territory presents an insurgent movement like Harakat al-Shabaab with a unique set of challenges. Its leaders must make decisions about how best to govern as well as the type of relationship it wishes to have with the subject population. Some insurgent movements decide to “strike a bargain” with the local population, even including local representatives some level of say in governance. Others, however, exclude locals from having any say in governance and do not care whether or not the subject population is supportive of it or not.
From the available evidence, which is often difficult to concretely verify, it seems that Harakat al-Shabaab falls between these two poles of insurgent governance. On the one hand, it has not established an inclusive system of governance and it enforces a harsh interpretation of Islamic law, including the carrying out of public executions, floggings, and amputations as punishments for a range of crimes from murder to rape, spying, and theft. On the other hand, Harakat al-Shabaab has not been completely oblivious to the need for it to establish some type of governance and outreach, or public relations, with the local population in territories it governs. Indeed, it has been active in publicizing its ongoing distribution of aid to the drought-stricken regions of southern and central Somalia.
Preventing United Nations-connected agencies from operating in its territory, the movement is attempting to reap the local public relations benefits for taking on the task of distributing aid to the affected areas. It has organized distribution points in districts under its control and has publicized these efforts through the issuance of press statements and the publication of photographs and participation in press interviews. Since the beginning of the year the movement has issued a series of press statements and sets of photographs showing the distribution of drought aid in multiple districts it governs including Banaadir, Hiraan, Middle Shabeellaha, Bay, and Bakool.
Harakat al-Shabaab has also been undertaking small and medium-sized public works projects since at least 2009. These projects include the repairing and construction of bridges, homes, and factories as well as the collection and distribution of zakat, the mandatory charity required of those Muslims who are financially able to contribute. Signs and banners at the sites of these projects announce that they are being sponsored by the movement.
Insurgent leaders are also keenly aware of the need to invest in social gatherings aimed at younger generations of Somalis, in the hopes of overcoming Harakat al-Shabaab’s legitimacy deficit. It now organizes and hosts public events such as communal prayers and festivals that mark the end of the Muslim holidays of Eid al-Fitr, at the end of Ramadan, and Eid al-Adha, at the end of the Hajj season. The holding of communal Eid prayers, attendance at which is considered mandatory by most Muslims, is a particularly important symbolic act, since historically such gatherings have been held under the auspices of the legitimate governing authority.
Preachers, imams (prayer leaders), and youth are key audiences that Harakat al-Shabaab has targeted and attempted to win over. In territory under its control the movement runs “academies” for the education of preachers, imams, and missionaries/propagandists. A Harakat al-Shabaab statement issued in May 2010 sheds some light on the curriculum at such schools. Books used include classical and medieval Islamic religious texts on hadith, the Qur’an, Qur’anic exegesis, and law, such as the thirteenth century hadith collection Riyad al-Saliheen as well as books on Arabic grammar and modern ideological texts by individuals such as the Palestinian-Jordanian jihadi-Salafi scholar Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi. The movement also organizes youth events such as Qur’an recitation and memorization competitions as well as fairs that feature athletic competitions such as footraces and archery. Children are also featured in many Harakat al-Shabaab videos, often shown playing with toy guns or marching along and shouting greetings at the movement’s fighters.
Harakat al-Shabaab has built a sophisticated media outlet, Al-Kata’ib (Brigades) and operates terrestrial radio and television stations in and around Mogadishu and other areas it controls. The evolution of the movement’s media has been remarkable with regard to the speed of its development and high technical production quality. Harakat al-Shabaab has been quick to point out instances when AMISOM and the TFG have misled the press. For example, in late October 2010 after the movement’s fighters conducted an attack on Ugandan positions in Mogadishu, AMISOM denied that any of its soldiers had been killed. Within days Harakat al-Shabaab issued a statement accompanied with photographs that showed a dead Ugandan AMISOM soldier and captured military equipment. (See this page on martyrdom videos).
Similarly, when insurgents captured a Burundian AMISOM soldier in late February it quickly issued photographs of their prisoner along with a press statement. Harakat al-Shabaab’s senior spokesman Ali Mahamoud Rage gave interviews to Somali media outlets and a short video was issued showing the prisoner. The movement has also publicly claimed that leaders of Somalia’s socially and politically important clans, with whom it has a complex relationship, have joined with it against AMISOM, backing up its claims with photographs and other media coverage issued online and via local networks. See the material at this site. See also this page.
Battlefield setbacks in Mogadishu and the western district of Gedo will likely reverse or stall the insurgent movement’s attempts to consolidate and expand its governing structures. It had begun to name new governors of districts under its control when AMISOM launched its most recent offensive with the TFG and Ahlul Sunna Wal Jamaacah. The public naming of local insurgent officials suggests that prior to the start of the offensive Harakat al-Shabaab was growing increasingly certain about its victory, particularly since the TFG’s United Nations mandate is set to expire in August. The results of the ongoing fighting will shed a great deal of light on how strong or weak the insurgents’ governing structures are. In the past Harakat al-Shabaab has proved to be remarkably adaptable and, barring sustained internal reform of the TFG, it is unlikely to disappear. The TFG was publicly rebuked recently by elders of the powerful Hawiye clan confederation after the transitional parliament voted to extend its own mandate despite having no real accomplishments. Military gains will ultimately be inconsequential if the TFG remains a figurehead institution that is beset with infighting and corruption. Until real reform occurs Harakat al-Shabaab will likely remain as a virulent force within the country.
Christopher Anzalone is a doctoral student in the Institute of Islamic Studies at McGill University.