THE U.S. military's new Africa command will help safeguard West African nations' oil and other energy production against rebel or terrorist attacks, the general organising the command said .
However, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) has dismissed the role of the new command saying it smirks of typical American braggadocio "which has no place in the realism of living in today's world."
The U.S. wants to help countries such as Nigeria, its fifth largest supplier of oil, improve its military's ability to thwart the kind of attacks by militants who in the past year halted production by about 600,000 barrels a day.
"You look at West Africa and the Gulf of Guinea, it becomes more focused because of the energy situation," U.S. Army General Bantz Craddock, head of the European Command, told reporters in Washington. Safeguarding energy "obviously is out in front."
Continuing unrest in the Middle East puts a premium on U.S. security alliances and energy resources in Africa. The continent supplied 24 percent of U.S. daily crude oil imports in February, ahead of the Mideast's 18.6 percent, the Energy Department said.
Consolidating the military's operations in Africa under a single command will help the U.S. to strengthen counter terrorism programs it runs in more than nine countries from the Horn to the Western Sahara as al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations migrate deeper into Africa, said Craddock and other officials.
Other factors including improving African responses to humanitarian crises like the conflict in Darfur, they said.
Africa "has not been a priority; now we need to make it a priority," Theresa Whelan, the Pentagon's lead official on Africa involved in planning for the command.
The U.S. military divides the globe into regions of responsibility or "commands." The Africa Command will be the fifth, joining commands responsible for NATO and Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Pacific and South America.
The current structure, which splits Africa among three commands, "has kind of meant that everyone was responsible and therefore no one really was," Senator Hillary Clinton, the New York Democrat and presidential candidate, said in an interview.
"Sometimes in hearings you'd ask about the connection between the Islamists in Sudan and Islamists in Somalia and Kenya" and other regions "and you'd get an answer, 'That's not in our region of responsibility," Clinton said.
The crisis in Darfur, for example, currently straddles two jurisdictions: Sudan is under the Central Command while Chad, which is being deluged with Sudanese refugees, is part of the European Command.
U.S. lawmakers' will likely examine whether the command's mission is well defined and ensure that training and equipment provided to African security forces isn't used to suppress internal dissent or threaten other nations, Lauren Ploch, an analyst for the non-partisan Congressional Research Service, said in a May 16 report.
Other challenges include overcoming skepticism among Africans about the U.S. military's role.
"Africa is capable of solving its own problems," said Abdalmahmood Abdalhaleem, Sudan's ambassador to the United Nations. "Africa in the 21st century cannot be guided by others. We are mature enough to do it by ourselves."
Ploch in her report wrote "there is considerable apprehension over U.S. motivations" as "some Africans worry that the move represents a neo-colonial effort to dominate the region militarily."
Nii Akuetteh, the executive director of Africa Action, a Washington based, non-profit group, said advocacy groups are concerned that "this has nothing to do with African interests and programs; it's access to oil and the war on terror."
Craddock rejected the notion that the U.S. would deploy troops to defend production facilities. "It's not something we are planning," he said. "The focus here is to enable countries" to improve their "security of any type of production oil, natural gas, minerals."
AFRICOM won't have large military units or permanent bases. It will consist of a headquarters, yet to be determined, staffed with "fairly substantial" numbers of civilians from the Departments of State, Treasury and Health and Human Services as well as military branches, Rear Admiral Robert Moeller, who's assisting in setting up the command, said in an interview.