Africa, the United States Military, and the Sequester

Sequestration, also known as ‘the sequester’, is something anyone with a mild interest in American politics will have heard about in the past few months, but what is it and what does it affect?

Image courtesy of the US Army, public domain.

Image courtesy of the US Army, public domain.

The sequester was a set of automatic spending cuts ordered under the Budget Control Act of 2011, which was meant to serve as an alternative way of pursuing long term deficit reduction, if Congress could not find a solution on their own. Since no solution was reached within Congress, the spending cuts, divided between the domestic and foreign policy budget, went into effect on March 1st.[1]

Cuts to the foreign policy budget essentially mean one thing: decreased American militarisation at home and abroad. It is important to note that along with these cuts there will be cuts to education, health, and programs for children such as Sesame Street. However, neither presidential candidate in November focused as much on these as they did on what sequestration meant to the defence budget.  Both President Obama and Mitt Romney called for an increased defence budget. Even Congressional Democrats and Republicans were scrambling to find a way to spare budget cuts in the name of national security.

But did anyone think about the fact that an ever-increasing debt is a larger threat to national security than budget cuts? How about the fact that it should not be normal to hear about a drone strike in Pakistan, or about joint US military exercises in various countries across Africa? These cuts, and the resulting decreased militarisation will, in the long run, be a good thing; especially when it comes to African states.

The U.S relationship with the African continent has long been one of securing interests. During the Cold War, US-Africa relations were aimed at containing Soviet influence and post-Cold War goals were focused on spreading liberal democracy across the continent. Incentives were provided to African states engaged in democratisation such as Mozambique and aid was taken away from Cold War allies such as Zaire and Liberia. Following the humanitarian intervention in Somalia, where 18 American soldiers’ bodies were dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, President Clinton issued a policy directive that called for a curtailment of American involvement in African affairs. This changed following 9/11, and the securitisation of the African continent dominated U.S national security discourse, which in turn led to the creation of the U.S African Command (AFRICOM).

AFRICOM was created in 2007 under the Bush Administration with a mission to “defend the national security interests of the United States by strengthening the defense capabilities of African states and regional organizations and, when directed, conducting military operations, in order to deter and defeat transnational threats and to provide a security environment conducive to good governance and development.”[2] It is no great secret, however, that the main aim of AFRICOM is to promote American interests, secure natural resources, and contain Chinese influence.[3]

Since its inception, AFRICOM has conducted numerous joint military exercises annually as well as secured military bases such as Camp Lemonnier, a permanent American drone base in Djibouti. In fact, in the 2012 fiscal year, the U.S was scheduled to participate in roughly 350 military-to-military “engagements” across Africa.[4] So is AFRICOM really benefiting the security programs of African states, and what do Africans think of AFRICOM?

“This so-called AFRICOM will not benefit ordinary Africans in any way. All it will do is protect America‘s interests and enrich the government officials of a particular regime”, said William Kokulo, a university student in Monrovia, Liberia.[5]

Even African leaders have accused AFRICOM of interfering in local military and peace-keeping operations, while others have accused the Americans of fuelling terrorist activity while claiming to combat them.[6]

Most of these accusations have come forward under the Obama administration. In fact, President Obama’s Africa policies have been that of increased militarisation, even more so than under the Bush administration.

Well, not anymore, because the sequester means cuts to AFRICOM’s budget.

The cuts to AFRICOM mean less joint military exercises, which were extremely costly to begin with and arguably not that effective. This also gives African militaries a greater opportunity to work with each other and foster regional security initiatives. In the end, if African states want a greater sense of regional security, it is up to them to create these initiatives, because external assistance from AFRICOM will only be informed by American interests and not necessarily what is good for Africa.

Something that constantly gets misconstrued when it comes to American perceptions of African states is the idea that African leaders are helpless and need assistance when it comes to protecting themselves. In fact, African leaders are displaying their agency today more than ever, given the multiplicity of international actors engaged on the continent.

It is of great national interest to African states to be able to ensure their own security, and there is no doubt in my mind that with lessened American military presence, a sense of heightened regional security will flourish in Africa.

According to former chairman of the joint chiefs, Admiral Mike Mullen, the sequester gives American politicians a chance to rethink its domestic infrastructure, “Focusing on domestic revitalisation and a responsible budget would be a good way for American to preserve its standing in the world – instead of excessive defense spending.”

Let’s hope so.