Into Africa – always something new: AFRICOM and a history of telling Africans what their problems are DAvID ChUTeR
It is a truism that the identification and analysis of the major security problems of the world are, for the most part, in the hands of Western interests. This dominance is not complete, and not unchallenged, and is starting to fray at the edges as new forces like China seek to shape the global agenda towards their own interests. But it remains true that the most discussed global security issues tend to be those which are important to Western governments, and which are analysed by Western think-tanks and Western media. These issues may, or may not, be truly the most important, and the solutions proposed may or may not be appropriate. Likewise, local elites may genuinely share the Western analysis or they may not. But in any event, there is usually only one game, with a dominant discourse, and those who wish to be players have to accept it. There is nothing particularly sinister or unusual about this state of affairs. It has been normal for much of history; one thinks of the power of the discourse of the medieval Church in Europe, for example. But this domination has not been seriously challenged since the end of the Cold War, and it has been especially strong, and effectively unchallenged, in Africa. We take it for granted that most books on Africa are written by non-Africans, and that, for example, the vast majority of the sources on the 1990-4 Rwandan crisis available to a researcher in Mali or Malawi will be written by whites, and often non-experts at that. While African intellectual capital is abundant, much of it has to go abroad if it is to make a living, and learn to express itself in a former colonial language if it is to have influence. Books by scholars of African origin are almost always published in the West, or by African institutions, themselves funded by Western donors. There are more researchers on African problems outside Africa than there are on the continent, just as there are probably more government officials working on African issues in the external world than there are African diplomats. It is only when we try to imagine, say, an international conference on the current American economic crisis held in Dar-esSalaam, where the working language is Swahili, that we realise how strange this situation is. The same is true at a more practical level. Western leaders attempt to solve African crises, rather than the reverse. It is regarded as normal that Western states form contact groups, and take the lead in finding solutions to problems in
Africa. When Africans try to do this among themselves, as recently in the Ivory Coast, the West feels hurt and excluded. There is nothing new about this dominant/submissive relationship between the West and Africa, either in its substance or in the way it is reflected in academic and popular discourse. The perception of African security issues and the discussion of ways of dealing with them have been so firmly in the hands of the outside world for so long that it is legitimate to describe the situation as one of hegemony, in the intellectual sense of the term. As defined by the Italian political philosopher Antonio Gramsci, hegemony refers to the ability of one group to impose a discourse (a way of thinking and speaking about the world) on other groups. Critically, this involves not only the use of coercion, but, more importantly, the spontaneous agreement of other groups that this discourse is correct.1 An example from history would be the loyalty of many ordinary Europeans to a monarchy, even when a move to democracy would have benefited them. Gramsci was writing in a domestic political context, but of course the same idea can be usefully applied at the international level. Western intellectual hegemony has a long history in Africa, and it began in the nineteenth century with the concept of a “continent without history”. The lack of written records encouraged the idea that there was no civilisation in Africa, and never had been, and that, as a result, African experience itself was irrelevant. Thus, “nothing useful could develop without denying Africa’s past . . . and a slavish acceptance of models drawn from entirely different histories”.2 This was believed not simply by colonialists, but by Africans themselves. From the pioneers of African nationalism in the nineteenth century to the founding fathers of African independence, African intellectuals and leaders believed that they must reject the past entirely, and follow models imported from the West, if they were to become truly modern and part of the international community. There having been no states in Africa in the past, it was assumed, they had to be built through imitation of European models.3 African leaders did not want to borrow from the West alone, of course, and they frequently looked at Asian states, especially Japan, for inspiration. Yet Japanese modernisation (like that of Korea, Singapore and others later) was not based on a rejection of the past, but rather its use as a firm base from which to select only those foreign ideas which seemed interesting and useful. Moreover, Japan was not colonised, and was free to choose between different sources of advice – the British to train the Navy, the Germans to train the Army, etc. This was a model subsequently followed by other Asian nations. African nations not only lacked the well-organised and effective states that had developed organically in Asia, but tended to be overwhelmed after independence by the influence of the former colonial power.4 The natural result of all this was a lack of African self-confidence in defining African problems and solutions, and the growth of a deracinated African elite, educated abroad, speaking a colonial language, and with a pre-emptive cultural cringe towards foreign experts, whether they were missionaries or Marxist-
Leninist political commissars. Nowhere was this more obvious that in the definition of Africa’s security problems, and AFRICOM, with its stated objectives of bolstering security, preventing and responding to humanitarian crises, encouraging African unity and preventing conflict, fits very much into this historical paradigm. During the colonial era, the problem of African security could be defined simply as the preservation of colonial rule. Security forces were largely recruited from indigenous peoples, and were geared to maintaining internal order rather than protecting borders. They would have been much too small for the latter task, and anyway, apart from a few skirmishes in the margins of the First and Second World Wars, the imperial powers did not fight over their African territories: it simply wasn’t worth it. Meanwhile, the first stirrings of nationalism in the 1930s attracted the interest of the colonial police authorities, who assumed that the nationalists were Communist agitators, or at least were manipulated by them.5 Africans were not consulted about such issues. There was a distinction, certainly, between the majority of colonies, where independence arrived quickly, and those with large settler populations, like Rhodesia, Mozambique, Angola and, of course, South Africa, where the colonial or settler governments resisted independence violently. The African security problem in the 1960s was defined as preventing the takeover of white settler colonies by Moscow-financed terrorist groups. African leaders like Patrice Lumumba (the Osama bin Laden of the 1960s) were regarded with horror and terror by Western political leaders, fearful that Africa would collapse into bloody chaos if they were to take power. Lumumba’s murder in 1961 was greeted with relief by right-thinking people everywhere.6 By the 1970s the African security problem was seen as countering the policies of the Soviet Union and, to an extent, China by financing more or less anyone (UNITA, RENAMO) opposed to a government which enjoyed Soviet or Chinese backing, and supporting moderate African political leaders in states which were still settler-run. In Rhodesia this meant backing the deservedly forgotten Abel Muzorewa and Ndabanige Sithole (both, conveniently, churchmen) who favoured accommodation with the white regime, over Joshua Nkomo and Robert Mugabe, collectively the Osama bin Laden of the 1970s. Africans were generally not consulted, but where they were, as in the 1972 Pearce Commission on the future of Rhodesia, they turned out to have very different views from those of the West.7 The “trans-national terrorism” element of AFRICOM’s mandate is essentially a continuation of this policy of countering attempts by nonWestern actors to become influential in Africa. By the 1980s, the security problem in Africa was seen as the sustainment of the white regime in South Africa, as the West’s one reliable anti-communist ally, but without being too obvious about it. African leaders like Hastings Banda of Malawi, who advocated accommodation with the Apartheid regime, were praised for their realism. Those like Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia, who supported the African National Congress (its headquarters was in Lusaka), were criticised for supporting terrorism. Africans were not consulted unless, like Chief Mangosutu
Buthelezi, they were prepared to ally themselves with the Apartheid regime. Above all, the West was concerned that any transition of power to the black majority should be to leaders like Buthelezi, rather than the terrorist Nelson Mandela, the Osama bin Laden of the 1980s. By the time of the unexpected end of the Cold War, the tradition of foreign definition of Africa’s security needs was well established. Subsequently, the weakness of many African economies has meant that this domination has been extended to actual influence, and even control, over the security sector itself. The debts the West had persuaded African countries to take on to finance exportoriented growth became impossible to repay when that same export growth led to a huge surplus of raw materials and a corresponding fall in prices and export earnings. African economies were thus delivered largely into the hands of Western economic institutions, and their governments and security sectors soon followed. As a result, the security sectors of many African countries have been extensively remodelled in recent years, often by different actors at the same time, and not infrequently in ways that are inconsistent with each other. But this is, in fact, merely a continuation of former colonial practice. The colonial effort was always confused and divided, and never limited to the formal European authorities. Especially in colonies where “indirect rule” was practised, these authorities did not intervene very much in the lives of the ordinary people. Few colonies were rich (Cecil Rhodes’ British South Africa Company never paid a dividend in all its decades of operation) and there was little appetite in colonial capitals for expensive health and education schemes. Their priorities were internal peace and economic benefits to the homeland. Finance ministries were always complaining about the costs involved, and infrastructure projects were largely limited to constructing ports and railways to assist exports. Some colonies, indeed (like Rhodesia), were private businesses with their own mercenary armies: the Congo was initially a personal economic possession of King Leopold of the Belgians. A surprising amount of African colonisation came about when governments – often reluctantly – took over territories originally acquired by private businessmen looking for a quick profit. Much of the white man’s burden, in Africa at least, was therefore taken up by voluntary societies, especially missionary organisations like the large and influential London Missionary Society, founded in 1795. While practice varied among denominations, missionaries naturally tended to be active and evangelical, as well as highly dedicated. In the British tradition, they applied the logic of their domestic missions – saving souls and reforming morals – to the African population. They aimed at nothing less than the complete transformation of African society and the production, through the schools they ran, of young Christian gentlemen (and later women) essentially like themselves. (Joseph Conrad’s International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs in The Heart of Darkness was not entirely a joke.) Their ambitious objectives and high moral tone have been inherited by many of the NGOs who work in Africa today. Africa remains the only continent still receiving large amounts of development aid (more than half of all IMF loans go to African states), and the only
one where the West still has a real ability to influence internal political and economic developments. Unsurprisingly, therefore, nations, international organisations and NGOs compete with each other to define Africa’s problems as ones that they have the answer to, and this is nowhere more obvious than in the security sector. As a result, there is no single Western discourse about African security, but rather a complex set of competing ones, with a rather different mix in different countries, and sometimes overlapping and conflicting efforts even in the same country. It is thus arguments among Westerners, rather than debates among Africans, which determine what Africa’s security priorities are seen to be. One can follow, for example, the evolution in the thinking of the development community from the 1960s to the present day, from hostility to wary acceptance of the security sector, and from indifference to deep involvement in its transformation.8 There are signs that international financial organisations may be moving gently in the same direction; again, the interlocutors remain the same, but the message changes subtly over the years. Even within governments, the balance of power between ministries can shift over time; the UK’s Department for International Development, created in 1997, rapidly became an actor in a field hitherto dominated by others. Elsewhere, development ministries have become involved in the African security sector to an unprecedented degree, and in some countries – Germany for example – they are the most powerful actors in making security policy towards Africa. But development ministries, for all their expertise elsewhere, do not have automatic credibility with professionals from the security sector. Some of them resort to arm’s-length financing to secure influence indirectly, others to seeking to expand the definition of the security sector to include elements – like parliaments – where they believe that their involvement will have more credibility. It is no surprise that Africans are often confused by the variable geometry in which the West appears. The same is true of NGOs. Like missionaries of different sects a century ago, they are in competition with each other in the market of ideas, and have to attract funding by offering to work in areas which are attractive to donors, even if they are not necessarily the most important areas as seen by Africans. Moreover, almost all NGOs in Africa are ultimately funded by governments in some form, and they are often resented by locals as mechanisms for indirect Western influence. It is also true that, when NGOs employ local talent, they frequently hire the good people from government and the security forces, because they pay better and offer more reliable salaries. For more than a century, therefore, Africa’s problems have largely been identified and analysed by different groups of foreigners, who have then set out to solve them, often in competition with each other. Whether this analysis and these solutions have been correct or not is not really the issue. The missionaries have won, and it is simply impossible to know whether, despite their best endeavours, Africans are actually articulating their own security needs, or unconsciously rehearsing what they have learned from us. All of this makes the current – laudable – desire for African “ownership” of security issues rather problematic.