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Rhetoric and reality of AFRICOM: Lessons from Mali

Abena Ampofoa Asare

2012-09-27, Issue 599

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What is the value of America’s military and humanitarian interventions? Just look at Mali: Its shattered democracy and roving rebel groups are a troubling picture of an AFRICOM partner state.

Six months after an ill-fated military coup d’état, the news from Mali continues to be distressing. A collection of rebel groups are steadily gaining ground in the Northern region while the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) tries to drum up support to deploy security forces on behalf of Mali’s beleaguered government. Tens of thousands of displaced persons are confronting hunger and insecurity in refugee camps throughout the region. While the disintegration of Mali’s political stability is a heartbreaking twist of fate for a country which has long prided itself on its stable electoral democracy, the country's recent trajectory is an important warning for the rest of African continent. First, regularly-spaced presidential elections are not the entirety of a strong democracy. Second, African governments should think twice about the presence of United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) within their borders.

AFRICOM bills itself as a force for democracy, humanitarianism and good governance in Africa by claiming that United States interests are safest when African governments are strong. Just last August, General Carter Ham (Commander-AFRICOM) described the security of partner states as one critical measure of AFRICOM’s mission. [1] Are governments capable of guarding their own national borders and contributing regionally? Do their militaries adhere to the rule of law and respect the people they serve? These indicators, he noted, are the benchmarks of AFRICOM’s success.

Ironically, for over a decade, Mali has been a key AFRICOM partner. To the tune of millions, US forces have provided special operations, drug traffickig and counterterrorism training in the large West African nation. Today’s Mali of the shattered democracy and roving rebel groups is a troubling picture of an AFRICOM partner state.

On 22 March, scarcely a month before presidential elections, Amadou Sanogo, a captain in the Malian army, seized control of the government by promising to quell the Tuareg autonomy struggle in the country’s northern region. Within ten days of the takeover, the army was entirely routed by Tuareg forces. Since April, the Tuareg in turn have been struggling to hold their ground against multiple rebel groups with varying agendas who have entered the northern region’s political vacuum. The most well-known of these is Ansar Eddine, responsible for the desecration of the world heritage site that is Timbuctou. The presence of Al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQM), an Islamist organization tenuously connected to the Al Qaeda franchise, is also central to global anxieties about terrorism in West Africa. The secessionist Tuareg state, Azawad, has called for international help by asserting its identity as ‘the new ally in the war on terror.’ [2] Meanwhile, drought conditions coupled with political violence have led to the displacement of an estimated 440,000 people. The storm clouds of a massive humanitarian disaster are gathering.

By its own standard, AFRICOM’s mission in Mali has failed. Captain Amadou Sanogo, the coup-maker who bears the greatest immediate responsibility for plunging Mali into political unrest, was extensively trained by AFRICOM, even traveling to the Georgia, Virginia and Texas for Department of Defense additional enrichment.

In addition, there has been a parade of social scientists warning that US policies are undermining Mali’s security. In 2003, one observer warned that by empowering the Bamako government to crack down on northern Islamic groups, US government initiatives were ‘creating enemies where there were none before.’ [3] A 2007 article in the Journal of Contemporary African History claimed that US policies were actually making Mali more unstable. [4] Again, in 2009, historian Vijay Prashad reported on the risk associated with AFRICOM’s dogged empowerment of the Malian army. [5] Instead of encouraging former President Touré’s government to incorporate the disaffected northern region into the country by providing social and economic services to some of the world’s poorest communities, AFRICOM offered powerful economic incentives for Bamako to choose militarization as the answer to the Tuareg secessionist impulse.

On the ground, AFRICOM’s arms and support have been found lacking. Where were the border control, communication and intelligence resources when Tuareg fighters, heavily armed and spoiling for a fight, crossed the borders from Libya, to Algeria, to Mali? When the Malian government struggled to hold its own against rebel fighters in the north, where was AFRICOM’s equipment and expertise? When the US-trained Captain Sanogo mutinied, the US State Department did not publicly consider its responsibility for a disastrous action taken by soldiers trained to be too big for their britches.

For students of African history, the notion that African democracy, stability and good governance will result from more deadly arms and more powerful soldiers is the stuff of satire; and yet this is precisely the grounds on which AFRICOM functions. In Mali, US money, training and rhetoric created an unbalanced situation where increasingly powerful military men with outsized ambition swagger around in one of the world’s poorest nations. There is little to suggest that militarization will ease any of Africa’s political and social problems. Yet, instead of honestly and transparently looking at these hard lessons, AFRICOM rolls on with its rhetoric, ignoring the wreckage trailing behind it.

As recently as 2010, Department of Defense analysts were singing Mali’s praises, claiming that its ‘balanced approach’ to counterterrorism had ‘proven effective in maintaining stability, while mitigating extremism.’ [6] The scores of reports trumpeting the good news that in Mali hearts and minds are changed, rule of law strengthened and the army trained to be effective and conscientious, now seem woefully out of date and even perverse. Where else is rhetoric standing in for reality in terms of our understanding of AFRICOM?

There are myriad reasons why the US government may have chosen to overlook the demise of a partner nation’s democracy. We are not so far away from the Cold War years of realpolitik as we might imagine. But let us be clear. All of these reasons have to do with US self-interest and not with the needs, security, or human rights of the Malian people who are suffering mightily through this painful transition.

For Africa, Mali forces us to recognize that AFRICOM does not exist for our benefit. The money, arms, supposed war prevention and capacity-building initiatives — the ‘help’ that AFRICOM offers — cannot guarantee the stability of African states. Indeed, continually beating the war drum and conflating development with militarism exacerbate the tensions that threaten Africa’s progress.


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* Abena Ampofoa Asare is Assistant Professor of Modern African Affairs at Stony Brook University -- State University of New York. She is writing a book about transitional justice and human rights in Ghana.

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