Why foreign countries are scrambling to set up bases in Africa
The Horn of Africa is the epicentre of foreign military activity. Foreign troops have been deployed to support peace initiatives, subdue terror groups and support foreign security initiatives
French Air Force soldiers work on a Boeing C135 parked on the French Air Force base in Niamey, Niger in December, 2017.
Recent media reports claim that a covert Kenyan paramilitary team is responsible for the unconstitutional killing of terror suspects in nighttime raids. The reports are based on interviews with US and Kenyan diplomatic and intelligence officials.
The team was trained, armed and supported by US and British intelligence officers.
It has been reported that since 2004, a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) programme has been operational in Kenya without public scrutiny. For its part, the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) has played a key role in identifying, tracking and fixing the location of targets.
This has drawn renewed attention to the reality of widespread foreign security operations in Africa.
Several African governments are hosting foreign military bases. This is despite the African Union (AU) Peace and Security Council’s ongoing concerns about the proliferation of foreign military bases on the continent. The AU is also concerned about its inability to monitor the movement of weapons to and from these military bases. Regardless, a host of bilateral agreements between AU member states and foreign powers underlie the spread of foreign military forces across the continent.
At least 13 foreign powers have a substantial military presence on the continent. The US and France are at the forefront of conducting operations on African soil.
Moreover, private military groups are active in several conflict zones on African soil. Northern Mozambique is the most recent case.
These dynamics coincide with claims that Russian MiG-29 and Su-24 warplanes have now conducted missions in Libya in support of Kremlin-backed private military forces to extend Moscow’s influence in Africa.
Military base mapping
Currently, the US has 7,000 military personnel on rotational deployment in Africa. These troops carry out joint operations with African forces against extremists or jihadists. They are hosted in military outposts across the continent, including Uganda, South Sudan, Senegal, Niger, Gabon, Cameroon, Burkina Faso and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
In addition, 2,000 American soldiers are involved in training missions in 40 African countries. American special forces operate across east Africa in so-called forward operation locations in Kenya and Somalia.
Like the US, France has either deployed military forces or established bases in a number of African countries. The country has more than 7,500 military personnel currently serving on the continent. Its largest presence is in the Sahel, especially in the border zone linking Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger.
The presence of foreign military forces in Africa is not limited to Western powers. China has been particularly active with its military presence in the Horn of Africa. It has become more engaged since 2008 when it participated in the multinational anti-piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden.
Since then China has maintained an anti-piracy naval presence in the Horn of Africa and Gulf of Aden. Between 2008 and 2018, the Chinese Navy deployed 26,000 military personnel in a variety of maritime security operations.
In 2017, China inaugurated its first overseas military base in Djibouti. This came after the US established Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti in 2003.
Lemonnier was established alongside French, Italian, Spanish, German and Japanese bases. China has developed a 36-hectare military facility to host several thousand Chinese troops and provide facilities for ships, helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft.
China’s military base in Djibouti was set up to support five mission areas. These are counter-piracy in the Gulf of Aden; intelligence collection on other countries; noncombat evacuation of Chinese citizens in East Africa; international peacekeeping operations where Chinese soldiers are deployed; and counter-terrorism operations.
India is another Asian nation that has increased its naval presence in Africa. The country has established a network of military facilities across the Indian Ocean to counter China’s rising military footprint in the region.
It also wants to protect its commercial sea lanes from piracy.
India has ongoing deployments that monitor developments in the Horn of Africa and Madagascar. The country also plans to establish 32 coastal radar surveillance stations with sites in the Seychelles, Mauritius, and other locations outside Africa.
When it comes to the Middle East, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are the two countries with a notable military presence in Africa.
Turkey joined the international counter-piracy task force off the Somali coast in 2009. In 2017, it opened a military base in Mogadishu, Somalia. The purpose is to train recruits for the Somali National Army. Turkey will also support the Somali navy and coastguard.
The UAE has had a military base in Eritrea since 2015. It comprises a military airfield with aircraft shelters and a deepwater naval port. The base has been used in operations against opposition forces in Yemen.
Foreign military motivations
It is clear that the Horn is the epicentre of foreign military activity in Africa. Foreign troops have been deployed there to counter threats to international peace, subdue terror groups and pirates, and support foreign security initiatives.
But there are other motivations to establish military bases in Africa. These include protection of commercial interests, aligning with friendly regimes, and expressing dominance on a continent that is the focus of rising global competition.
Of course, Africa is not the exception. The US, for example, also maintains a substantial military and security presence in the Gulf region. It has bases in countries such as Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and UAE.
For some observers it might seem like foreign governments are imposing their militaries on Africa, but, in fact, many African governments are keen to host them.
Bilateral agreements with major powers generate income for African states. The opening of China’s military base in Djibouti is a case in point. Most of Djibouti’s economy relies on Chinese credit.
The presence of foreign military forces has also played a significant role in fighting terror groups. These include groups like al-Shabaab in East Africa and jihadists in Mali. This explains why several African countries are willing to turn to foreign governments for advice, intelligence and support.
But there is a downside to the presence of foreign forces on the continent. For instance, the African security landscape has become overcrowded by a multiplicity of foreign security and military activities. These activities often function at cross purposes.
The competition among some of the world’s powers has been heightened by the increasing presence of Asian powers. China’s expanding presence in Djibouti has caused concern.
Its influence in Africa and the Indian Ocean has ruffled feathers within Japanese and Indian political and security circles. A Chinese monopoly could impede their engagement with the continent.
Finally, African countries are not agreed on how to regulate foreign security and military activities. The approach so far has been disjointed.
Though Africa’s peacekeeping capacity has increased significantly, the AU is still highly dependent on external funding and resources for its peacekeeping operations. It does not have the freedom to take independent strategic, operational and even tactical decisions in its operations.
As long as these shortcomings exist in Africa’s response to armed conflict, foreign militaries and intelligence services will continue to operate on the continent.
These are matters that have to be addressed before African states can heed the AU Peace and Security Council’s concerns about extensive foreign military involvement on the continent.
* Published in print edition on 18 September 2020
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