Nairobi — Africa will soon be home to a larger American military presence than it has ever hosted, the better to deliver bombs and advice on good governance, some say.That is not news: It has been a couple of months since the White House announced plans to establish a separate US military command for Africa - Africom - ostensibly to provide better humanitarian interventions and help with the 'war on terror'. The command, expected to be up and running by September, 2008, will expect greater 'security cooperation' from African countries.
What is interesting is the flurry of opinions - seen as alarmist or prescient, depending on your political leanings - as to exactly what this means for the continent. The move comes at a time of unprecedented growth in American military spending. In two years' time, the US will be spending eight times as much as China does on its military, and more than 20 times as much as Russia.
Guarding strategic interests
Much of this expansion is allegedly supported by neo-conservative thinking on how the world should be shaped to suit the only remaining superpower. And much of that thinking is anything but benign, laying the groundwork for a global 'sovereignty and resource grab'.
Raping and pillaging foreign nations has a long history. There was a time when grabbing what thy neighbour had was the thing to do for any empire builder. As nation states and international laws developed, the methods became less obvious. Now, it is called guarding strategic interests.
It is common knowledge that the foreign policy aims stated by the world's super-powers for public consumption are often convenient fictions or only partially true. For instance, the war on terror and lies about weapons of mass destruction were advanced to support the foreign policy decision to invade Iraq.
Sure, there were better reasons for that strategic move, but none blinded judgement better than that which pointed directly to 9/11.
Its about securing Africa's oil before China
Now, the war on terror brings the world's policeman on the search for greater footholds on Africa. Despite talk of overseeing military, humanitarian and good governance programmes, many commentators are convinced that the US' game plan is more about securing access to Africa's oil and other mineral resources before China does.
Even those persuaded that a presence is necessary to counter the spread of radical Islam do not expect American guns to be engaged in that fight. After all, the Americans have made it clear they have no intention of sending soldiers into sticky situations like Darfur and Somalia.
That is a job best left to African Union and United Nations troops: US intervention will typically be the sort that is done from an aircraft carrier.
Africom will secure the region for the empire's business and strategic interests.
The Guardian's Mr Simon Tisdall writes: "With Gulf of Guinea countries, including Nigeria, and Angola projected to provide a quarter of US oil imports within a decade, with Islamist terrorism worries in the Sahel and Horn of Africa and with China prowling for resources and markets, the US plainly feels a second wind of change is blowing, necessitating increased leverage."
US supported authoritarian regimes in Africa
The US presence is not likely to be felt in a whole lot more American boots on the ground just yet. Some theorise that Africom will create 'forward staging areas', spots to which large numbers of troops can be sent as needed. Their task will be to bring 'freedom' (remove regimes, even if popularly elected, that do not suit their interests) and 'stability' (protect regimes, even if dictatorial, that do).
For this work, they will count on many African governments. 'Leverage' is likely to be a sore point in years to come. This is especially so as the military head of Africom - a four-star general - will have a civilian counterpart whose job will be to use diplomacy, political and economic aid to get Washington's way on the continent.
Western nations already have great economic leverage over African governments. Some are keen to rush into Chinese arms to break this hold. Whether this will do any good as the US positions itself in Africa remains to be seen. One thing we can be sure of is that the noise about China closing its eyes to atrocities in Sudan and Zimbabwe is but a minor distraction.
The US and Britain have in the past supported regimes not much different because it suited their purposes. And should getting access to local resources require looking the other way as atrocities are committed (like the case in Nigeria), look away they will. Looking at US alliances with authoritarian governments in Africa, one can see that what plays best to the media is not always what works best in the world of realpolitik.
The writer is The Standard's Senior Associate Editor, Business