In the Congressional hearing on his appointment as Combatant Commander for the US Africa Command, General Ham opened his testimony with a list of the old familiar stereotypes of Africa and Africans:

General Ham at confirmation hearing Nov. 18, 2010

“Africa is important to U.S. interests. These interests include concerns over violent extremist activities, piracy, illicit trafficking, Africa’s many humanitarian crises, armed conflicts, and more general challenges such as the effect of HIV/AIDS. U.S. Africa Command, as the military component of a U.S. whole-of-government approach, has a role in addressing each of these issues. The key remains that Africa’s future is up to Africans.”

The last sentence is there to shift the blame to Africans if any of AFRICOM’s activities fail or have unfortunate consequences, such as the deaths of more than 1000 people, and the displacement of more than 100,000 that resulted from Operation Lightning Thunder. The constant shelling of Bakara market in Somalia and the continuing murder of civilians by AMISOM troops in Somalia, funded primarily by the US, is another ongoing disaster, but the “key remains that Africa’s future is up to Africans”, no matter how much AFRICOM interferes.  (see Africa Comments for updates on Somalia) And since most of the problems Africa faces will be exacerbated by increased militarization, there are likely to be many more disasters that will need to be shrugged off.

At no time during the entire confirmation hearing was the word oil mentioned.  You can find the transcript at africom.mil.  The United States gets at least 15% of its oil imports from Africa, that is expected to increase to 25% in the next five years. Oil was the primary reason the Africa Command was proposed initially by the Heritage Foundation. When Africans see the word oil omitted from discussions of AFRICOM, they know the words are disingenuous.

Senator Burris made the only reference to the resources of the African continent that have prompted the the current scramble for Africa by European and Asian nations, and even some in Latin America:

“And General Ham, we are also going to compete as well with China as they move into these various countries with their assistance. Africa has — it is the future for all of our existing countries, because the resources are there. And we have to look to how we can build our relationships with those African countries in spite of the terrorism and in spite of the conflicts that exist. We need to have a better presence on the continent.”

There was no further reference to Africa’s resources in the hearing.

The Washington Post did a bit of More War Now! drum beating in its writeup of the hearing:

“Al-Qaida-linked terrorist groups in Yemen and Africa have increasingly targeted Western interests, with al-Shabab in Somalia luring Somali-Americans home for terror training in hopes of sending them back to the U.S. to wage attacks.

Militants regularly travel back and forth between Yemen and Somalia.

Much of the U.S. military has been tied up in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade, but as those wars wind down and troops become available Ham said more should be trained in African languages and cultures.

“The extremist threat that’s emerging from East Africa is probably the greatest concern that Africa Command will face in the near future,” Ham told the Senate Armed Services Committee Thursday, during a hearing on his nomination.

Senators called the challenges facing Africa Command staggering and said it was imperative the command get what it needs to counter terror threats, including personnel, funding, equipment, as well as intelligence and surveillance assistance.

Ham said that he also wants to work with the Pentagon’s Southern Command to try and stem the illicit drug trafficking that routes narcotics from South America through West Africa and into Europe. He suggested the military could help stem the flow of drugs through maritime operations along Africa’s coast.”

We all know that the War On Drugs has been a failure and disaster since it began.  Bringing it to West Africa is not reassuring.  It has already done so much for Columbia and Mexico.  That is progress we can do without.

Returning to General Ham’s opening remarks they describe Africa as a place of violence, extremism (read terrorism) piracy, illicit trafficking, humanitarian crises, armed conflicts, and disease.  This brought to mind some thoughts I wrote about back in September 2007.

Today Africa has many successes throughout the continent. Unfortunately, one rarely hears of these successes. Rather one hears of war, famine, and disaster. Africans are portrayed as helpless, people whose survival, and whose success, is entirely dependent on the generosity of the developed world.  This narrative is constantly reinforced by celebrity condescension  or the constant humanitarian ad campaigns that portray suffering children. Humanitarian ads pop up constantly on television, magazines, the internet, reinforcing the picture of helpless suffering in Africa.

Uzodinma Iweala wrote in the Washington Post about “humanitarian” campaigns:

 

“Such campaigns, however well intentioned, promote the stereotype of Africa as a black hole of disease and death. News reports constantly focus on the continent’s corrupt leaders, warlords, “tribal” conflicts, child laborers, and women disfigured by abuse and genital mutilation. These descriptions run under headlines like “Can Bono Save Africa?” or “Will Brangelina Save Africa?” The relationship between the West and Africa is no longer based on openly racist beliefs, but such articles are reminiscent of reports from the heyday of European colonialism, when missionaries were sent to Africa to introduce us to education, Jesus Christ and “civilization.”

Africans, real people though we may be, are used as props in the West’s fantasy of itself. And not only do such depictions tend to ignore the West’s prominent role in creating many of the unfortunate situations on the continent, they also ignore the incredible work Africans have done and continue to do to fix those problems.”
In advertising itself as a humanitarian agency, dispensing aid with guns, AFRICOM is riding on the back of these condescending perceptions.

 

But there is a much nastier side to the perceptions enabling Africom, its exploitation of terror and those it calls terrorists. And a large part of this exploitation is taking advantage of traditional racist fear in the US. Racism is an important piece of American political history and discourse, though these days the language of racism is often carefully coded

This is NOT to say that AFRICOM is about racism. I don’t think that is true at all. I think it is about oil and other resources, and that it is about terrorism only insofar as exploiting terrorism is useful to coopting the oil and resources. But AFRICOM is carried along by the tide of American racial fears and perceptions.

Regarding the humanitarian narrative, aside from stereotypes and gratuitous insults, what worries me is the macro aspect of the condescension. By painting Africans as people unable to help themselves, the humanitarian narrative, and the media attention it gets, make it much easier for the US, using AFRICOM, to engage in imperial acquisition by calling it humanitarian aid and development. “They”, Africans, are helpless and dangerous, so “we” need guns to help them. Africom presents a new and lethal round of western exploitation.   By partnering with African militaries in every country it operates, AFRICOM reinforces the source of some of the worst terrorism waged against African populations, their own militaries.   All the training and “professionalizing” won’t change that.  And it will make it far more difficult for African governments and their citizens to clean up the resulting mess.

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