Worst-Case Scenarios: Africa and the United States

Published in: The Officer, September 1997

Developing worst-case scenarios for Africa is unfortunately not a difficult task. Over the past five years, we have seen genocide at a scale difficult to imagine, protracted civil wars, collapsed peace processes and desperate human deprivation. Yet as terrible as these events are, they do not seem to have an obvious connection to questions of U.S. national security. According to the old realpolitik point of view, Africa does not occupy an important place in the American national interest. I hope to use this article to show that this appearance is not necessarily correct.

Before delving into the issues, I want to point out that not all events which occurred in Africa over the past six or seven years have been worst-case scenarios. Most importantly, there has been a wave of democratic reform which has led to the establishment of multiparty system in some fifteen African states. This development by itself has obvious implications for U.S. national security. Unfortunately, these development usually do not receive the attention they deserve, a fact which is partially responsible for the poor record of American involvement in Africa. I want to provide for you a rough sketch of the mistakes made in two past cases: Angola and Somalia and then focus on what can be learned from the events in Rwanda and Liberia.

Disinterest in Africa

The current disinterested position towards Africa represents a low point in U.S. relations with Africa which stands on contrast to periods of increased attention. U.S. involvement in African affairs has gone through states since the 1960s which were driven by the dynamics of the East-West conflict. In the early 1960s. the Kennedy Administration initiated an opening to the newly independent states in an effort to forestall a Soviet foothold. This engagement consisted mostly of development aid and relatively small levels of military aid.

During the mid-1970s, at the height of the “second scramble for Africa,” U.S. involvement again experienced a high point when then-Secretary of State Heny Kissinger, among others, was convinced that the Soviets were moving to restrict and/or interdict U.S. access to Africa’s strategic resources. Accordingly, significant resources (at least in the African continent), both public and private, were expended to counteract this threat.

Both Angola and Somalia are examples of the impact of foreign intervention on local conflicts and how the U.S. was unable to get rid of the ghosts it called. Neither Angola not Somalia were of any interest to the U.S. per se. Angola was viewed as a beachhead of the Soviet Union in a part of the world full of strategic minerals and Somalia was view as strategically important due to its geographic location at the horn of Africa. In Angola we had the presence of Cuban troops which warranted U.S. intervention and in Somalia we had the presence of Cuban troops in neighboring Ethiopia. In each case, the U.S. pumped money and resources to those it perceived to be the most likely opponents of the perceived Soviet-Cuban expansionism. In each case, the U.S. failed to understand the local dynamics nor did it care much about the qualities of the leaders it backed.

Jonas Savimbi, the leader of the UNITA movement in Angola, was probably one of the more opportunistic politicians in southern Africa. Changing his ideology depending on the most important source of his funds, he started out as a Maoist supported by China during the initial independence struggle and then slipped into the democratic garb when the U.S. appeared as a more promising sponsor. At the same time, he also accepted a significant degree of help from the apartheid regime in South Africa, a factor which totally undermined his legitimacy in the eyes of Africans, but also a factor which the U.S. did not take into consideration.

Siad Barre came to power in Somalia after a coup in 1969 and initially pursued a populist agenda but quickly turned into one of the more repressive military dictators in Africa. As discontent with his rule increased, he chose the old, trusted strategy in the arsenal of unpopular governments, a foreign intervention. His efforts to reunite the Ogaden province, a territory inhabited by ethnic Somalis but occupied by Ethiopia since colonial times, backfired terribly, bankrupting Somalia and leading to even more repression until he was finally ousted, leaving behind chaos.

Both cases also demonstrated the difficulty of imposing the Cold War logic onto Africa through a number of very strange developments. Angola major export commodity is oil, much of which finds its way to the U.S., an important customer. U.S. oil companies are the major producers of Angolan oil in the Cabinda province. Since oil revenues were crucial for the Angolan government efforts in its civil war with UNITA, the security of the oil production facilities was of utmost importance. This task was consequently given to the Cuban troops stationed in Angola, leading to a situation where Cuban troops protected U.S. oil company installations against UNITA rebels which were financed to a large extent by the U.S. government.

The situation in Somalia was somewhat different, but with the same strange twists. Up to 1974, Ethiopia played the role of U.S. ally near the horn of Africa, considered to be a crucial geo-strategic location. After a radical revolution overthrew Emperor Haile Selassie, the U.S. began to review its options in the region. When Somalia decided to utilize the confusion of the revolution to invade the Ogaden province to satisfy its irredentist desires, on of the more amazing flip-flops of the Cold War took place. The Soviet Union decided that Ethiopia was a more valuable ally than Somalia, especially since Somalia had shown itself unwilling to listen to Soviet demands to stop the attack. The U.S., on the other hand, decided that Somalia was preferable to Ethiopia and by 1978 the two countries had switched allies. The U.S. military took over the Soviet base in Berbera and the Soviets moved their forces to Asmara and other installations.

Once the Cold War was over, the U.S. lost interest and left the respective countries to their own devices, countries which were now full of weapons paid for in part by U.S. taxpayers. UNITA refused to abide by the results of the elections supervised by the United Nations in 1992 and continued to fight. The bloodshed continues to this date and there are now some 9 million land mines in Angola, most planted by UNITA. The provincial capital of Huambo now has on of the highest concentrations of amputees in the world. Somalia never even had the luxury of an election which could have determined the leadership after Siad Barre. The general fled the country and the images of rival militia groups in Somalia with their ÒtechnicalsÓ and their guns are still vivid in AmericanÕs minds, these guns were later also aimed at U.S. soldiers. These and other conflicts have lasted long after the purposes for which the U.S. supported one or the other side have ceased to matter and solutions seem just as far away now as they did five years ago.

Demand for U.S. Intervention

How does this affect the U.S.? The immediate connection does not seem obvious. If various factions in some African country want to shoot at each other should the U.S. even pay attention? I believe there is a connection. These conflicts have a way of demanding intervention. In our age of instantaneous access to information, television images of conflict and warfare will continue to flow freely and in this manner demand intervention. The events leading up to operation ÒRestore HopeÓ in Somalia should serve as a reminder here. There will be a continued demand for U.S. participation in settling these conflicts and the U.S. will have a difficult time to extricate itself from these demands if it wants to continue to be perceived as the worldÕs leader.

Rwanda and Liberia can serve as examples here. Both are conflicts with unimaginable suffering and both are conflicts which could have been prevented are at least minimized. Outside observers who had paid attention knew that the situation in Rwanda was a breaking point in early 1994. They knew that President Habyarimana and the hard-line Hutu militants had distributed weapons to the interhamwe militias and that there was a strong likelihood of widespread attacks. Yet the United Nations Security Council was extremely slow in responding to the situation and had less than 200 personnel in place when the genocide started (see Newbury 1995 and United Nations 1995b).

Similarly, the situation in Liberia could have been stabilized at numerous occasions in the past 7 years, were it not for the lack of resources and personnel in that country. The West-African peacekeeping force, in the country since 1990, is completely bankrupt and barely able to defend itself (see Reno 1996). Again there has been no effort to take decisive steps and UN observers are down to 10.

U.S. Politically and Militarily Unprepared

As Somalia has shown us, the U.S. can find itself rather quickly in a situation where it is called upon to intervene in a conflict in Africa. Is the U.S. prepared to do so? The answer is unfortunately that the U.S. is not prepared politically or militarily.

The rhetoric of both political parties in this country has created a situation where multilateral action is all but impossible. The current presidential campaign is a perfect example. The Clinton Administration continues to state that it will not begin training U.S. soldiers for peace-keeping missions and the Dole campaign has been even more outspoken in its opposition to multilateral action. This leaves but two options: unilateral intervention or no intervention at all. Both alternatives will create long-term problems in U.S. relations to its allies and the unilateral solution is also dangerous as the fate of the eighteen U.S. Rangers in Somalia has shown.

Is Africa of Vital National Interest?

This is, then, the connection of Africa to U.S. security interests. Individual conflicts in Africa may not have an immediate impact upon U.S. security, but the persistence of such conflicts combined with a U.S. refusal to endorse multilateral actions will help to undermine any U.S. claim to global leadership. A foreign policy vis-a-vis Africa which is based on unilateralism rather than multilateralism will spell problems for the future. It will lead to series of ad hoc decisions, most likely driven by momentary popular opinion which will leave the rest of the world wondering about any long term commitment by the U.S.

The alternative would be to commit to multilateral action, the preventive monitoring of problem areas in coordination with willing African states and, if necessary, the preventive deployment of forces which are adequately trained and the commitment of transportation and infrastructural resources.

The worst-case scenario for Africa is then not any particular conflict on the continent, but a U.S. unwillingness to participate in consort with others in the solution of conflicts. This does not seem terribly threatening but it will undermine U.S. claims to global leadership and, whether one likes it or not, the U.S. is no longer in a position to go it alone. The next time there is a Desert Storm-like situation, the rest of the world may not be so willing contribute to the effort.

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