War on terror, China’s clout top US diplomatic foray into Africa

Sunday March 11 2018

Rex Tillerson in Kenya

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, President Uhuru Kenyatta, Deputy President William Ruto and Foreign Affairs minister Monica Juma at State House, Nairobi on March 9, 2018. PHOTO | WILLIAM OERI | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is making the obligatory “showing-the-flag” tour of Africa earlier than would have been expected.

After all, this is the Age of Trump, when African "shitholes" are thought not to matter. Ethiopia was Tillerson’s first stop followed by Djibouti, Kenya, Chad and Nigeria.

Unlike the Chinese, who come laden with infrastructure goodies, Tillerson was not expected to announce big, new development programmes in Africa, a point confirmed by the State Department before his tour.

From early on, the Trump administration had indicated it would slash financial commitments to foreign countries. It also expressed reservations regarding entanglements of other kinds, be they military alliances or multi-national trade pacts. The exception that was clearly stated was the war on terror That is the primary reason that brings the Secretary of State to Africa.

The common denominator linking the five countries is that they are all on the frontline in the war against terrorism, specifically Al Shabaab in East Africa, Boko Haram in Nigeria, and Islamist separatists in The Sahel. America is deeply involved in all three campaigns.

Boots on ground

Against Al Shabaab, it conducts numerous drone and manned airstrikes inside Somalia from its Lemonier base in Djibouti, and has some 500 personnel in Somalia itself.

The US used to have a counter-terrorism “training” base at Manda Bay in Lamu which it handed over to the Kenya Navy in 2006. Reports say there are still about “100 to 200” American special forces troops embedded there, though it is unclear whether they conduct clandestine operations inside Somalia.

In Ethiopia, the US will only admit to having radio intercept and relay stations, though there have been reports of a base in Dire Dawa. The US government claims that its soldiers in Africa in general are strictly to train their local counterparts and as “advisers”, and are not involved in combat operations, which might not necessarily be true.

Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti all have troops in Somalia as part of the Amisom force, which in theory is under the auspices of the African Union but in reality is a disguised UN mission. It is a hybrid force whose mandate cuts across counter-terrorism in Somalia, peacekeeping, training of Somali security forces, and overall nation-building involving support for Somalia’s political institutions.

Though the EU and the UN are the main financiers of Amisom, the US is a key funder directly and indirectly (through its contribution to the UN $7.3 billion peacekeeping budget).

The US, speaking from her seat at the UN Security Council last year, opposed a UN-backed plan to transition Amisom into a full-fledged peacekeeping force. Michele J. Sison, US deputy representative at the Council at the time, stressed the first priority to facilitate Amisom to militarily defeat Al Shabaab.

Amisom troop-contributing countries have been pushing for transformation into a UN peacekeeping mission so as to secure more reliable funding.

The US special forces are also in West Africa in Niger and Mali. They prop Nigeria in its fight to eradicate Boko Haram, whose activities have spilled over to neighbouring Chad, Niger and Cameroon..

China will definitely be on the agenda during Tillerson’s visit. Coincidentally, Russia’s Foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, is touring the continent at the same time.

China has no reason to worry that these two visits will affect her strong position in Africa, which she continually fortifies by funding more and more infrastructure projects.

It will be interesting how the Americans could introduce the discussion on the Chinese. Lately, the US government has become vocal over Africa’s rising financial debts to China.

Tillerson’s tour is not about the specifics of the local politics of the countries he stops by. However, he will voice the customary admonitions about corruption and democracy.

Warigi is a columnist with the Sunday Nation newspaper. Email: [email protected]