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Africa’s New Friend: Is the US just playing catch-up, or stumbling toward neo-colonialism?

By Milan Vesely, Toward Freedom, February 1998

As the old colonial powers—Britain, France, Portugal, and Belgium—retreat from Africa, the US is rushing in. Angola, Uganda, Ethiopia, Eritrea, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and even obscure African countries are appearing on every Clinton official’s itinerary. Does this diplomatic frenzy support a coordinated US foreign policy agenda? Or, is it driven by less noble, even colonialist economic objectives? Since the recent flurry of State Department attention was preceded by the signing of questionable mineral, communications, and financial deals by highly-leveraged US corporations, it’s a fair question. US newspaper headlines trumpet the trend: American Mineral Fields Corporation of Arkansas in billion dollar mineral deal, New Millennium Investment, Inc. of Washington signs Congo telecommunications agreement, and The Leon Tempelsman & Son Investment Group proposes Angolan diamond operation. Grandiose financial statements follow with almost frantic regularity. And most of the corporations making these announcements have heavyweight lobbyists from both sides of the political aisle.

For example, Barrick Gold Corp., an influential Canadian-US mining conglomerate which recently announced an 83,000-square-kilometer concession in Congo’s Kivu province, has ex-Secretary of State James Baker, Bush’s old point man, on its advisory panel. Meanwhile, through Citizens Energy International, Inc., the Kennedy family has interests in Continental Oil’s Angolan oil exploration projects, even though the area is a war zone. The Kennedy connection to Democratic campaign contributor Maurice Tempelsman reportedly facilitated support for his company’s Angolan diamond proposal from State Department and former National Security Advisor Anthony Lake. Lake instructed a senior deputy to call the US Export-Import Bank about possible financing, even though this violates guidelines prohibiting the bank from guaranteeing import/export financing to areas embroiled in civil unrest.

And, as if this pressure on the State Department to support certain African governments—be they democratic or despotic—isn’t enough, the US military is also a player. African governments recognize our military expertise, a Pentagon spokesman emphasized on conditions of anonymity, when questioned about US training teams ensconced as permanent fixtures in Uganda, Rwanda, Ethiopia, and half a dozen other African countries. US Special Forces also train 700-person rapid deployment battalions in Uganda, Zimbabwe, and Ethiopia, ostensibly for African peacekeeping duties. But the nature of their duties remains vaguely defined.

Military and political involvement is raising concern in some Washington quarters, however. Rep. Ben Gilman, Chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, was sufficiently curious in July 1997 to ask if the US military was training the Rwandan army in counter-insurgency in Gisenyi commune on the Congo/Rwandan border, commonly called the killing fields by local Hutu refugees. The army’s answer: Only humanitarian assistance was involved. But the same words were used to justify US involvement in Vietnam and early Soviet moves in the Afghan conflict.

With Madeleine Albright’s seven-nation Africa trip in December, the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s appointment as President Clinton’s special emissary, and Harold Wolpe’s designation as the Great Lakes envoy, many Africa observers are beginning to wonder if US engagement has sinister overtones. We are seeing a new colonialization in Africa, a World Bank official admits, and it’s by American speculators with minimum cash/maximum profit ventures based on short-term, low-risk exit plans. US political and military muscle is being used to facilitate the rape of Africa’s resources by American multinationals backed by both Democratic and Republican heavyweights.

Rev. Jackson’s December speech in Nairobi did little to dispel this notion. Africa’s raw material base is just exploding with potential, he explained at a US Embassy gathering, whether it’s new oil finds in Angola and Gabon, or gold and diamonds, copper and uranium in Southern Africa.

So, what is the Clinton Administration’s policy? Does the US fully grasp the potential pitfalls in African countries where the odds of achieving democratic government are greater than their peasant populations achieving a minimum per capital income of $150 a year? Unfortunately, the answer is clouded by rhetoric. The stakes are too high for us to stand aloof, UN Ambassador Bill Richardson told the House International Relations Committee in November, following his visit to the Congo, and the United States is maintaining a policy of cautious engagement. He elaborated: But we have a range of other interests in the region and intend to encourage the new African governments to undertake necessary political and economic reforms and to play a constructive role in the region. Commenting on Albright’s tour, State Department spokesperson James Foley added, The trip will focus on advancing US interests in the Great Lakes region, justice and the rule of law, stability, and economic opportunity. What justice and what rule of law? a cynical Red Cross official asks, surveying the burned-out hulk of a prison in Bulinga, Rwanda, following a rebel Hutu attack on Dec. 4 that left 10 Tutsi dead. And whose economic interests? wonders Arnold Bisasi, an opposition Uganda Freedom Movement spokesperson. That of Uganda, or that of American businessmen exploiting our raw material resources?

Another question is whether US pressure and financial muscle will have a moderating impact on governments that maintain power through corruption, terror, and subjugation of their populations. Or this: Is it reasonable to expect that corporations will become responsible, nation-building partners?

It doubt it, says British Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs official Andrew Davidson. After all, the US tried it with Mobutu for 30 years, and look at how successful that was. As an afterthought, he added: We don’t seem to have much better luck. Just look at how President Moi of Kenya manipulated the elections, President Mugabe in Zimbabwe confiscates farmland, and President Chiluba’s Zambian police shoot at his rival ex-President Kenneth Kaunda, while our own multinationals exploit East Africa’s agricultural industries.

Ulrike Wilson, the IMF representative in Kampala, is more hopeful, describing Ugandan President Museveni as extremely pragmatic and forward-thinking. She points to economic liberalization, a freewheeling press, and tolerance of opposition voices—if not opposition parties. Her argument is that Uganda is a shining example of how the US and African countries can work together to advance both democracy and economic growth. After years of decline under Idi Amin, a seven percent growth rate in 1997 certainly provides some proof. South Africa’s multi-racial progress is also presented as evidence that international big business can promote Africa’s democratic progress. Commerce and democracy are two sides of the same coin, quips an AT&T executive, contemplating his company’s burgeoning South African operations.

But as the US gets increasingly involved, policies and objectives remain less than clear. A Carnegie Foundation researcher asks pointedly, Is there a coherent US African policy, or is the Administration being dragged into relationships with corrupt and volatile regimes by American corporations seeking to exploit Africa’s gold, diamond, oil, and copper resources? Another fair question when one considers the sudden involvement of business giants Bechtel, Goldman Sachs, and the American Diamond Buyers group in the Congo and Angola. Military involvement is also expanding without a clear objective. With staging bases in Mombasa and Addis Ababa, and training missions in Rwanda, Ethiopia, Uganda, and elsewhere, the US may be forming a military Pax Afri-Americana. Even the admirable concept of training battalions to form an indigenous peacekeeping force has no defined guidelines. Who will be in overall command? Will US or African generals give the orders? What are the specific parameters for using this force? And who will pay for any military adventurism? Thus far, such questions haven’t been asked. This US-trained and -supplied force will be used to oppress indigenous opposition movements with American hardware, charges Elly Kigozi, an opposition Uganda Federal Alliance military commander, from his undisclosed location. Congress can’t really believe that the Ugandan government will allow American generals to control its own battalions, can they? They can’t be that stupid, surely?

More worrisome to US civil liberties groups is covert CIA involvement in destabilizing the Islamic fundamentalist government of the Sudan. Involvement in the internal affairs of African nations raises serious moral issues, argues Rev. Richard Rogers of the Southern Sudan Relief Committee. Over $20 million has been spent on the pretext that the rogue Khartoum regime sponsors international terrorism. Egyptian intelligence and Al-Sha’b newspaper report that up to 850 US military advisers are training guerrillas for the SPLA (Sudanese Peoples Liberation Army) of rebel John Garang. But US support seems to lack clear direction. We’re not against Islam, Garang said during a December visit to Egypt, contradicting US policy. Meanwhile, General Omar Hassan Al-Bashir maintains control, while the SPLA splinters into factions, some siding with Al-Bashir’s administration.

Economic sanctions are applied half-heartedly, mainly due to pressure from US corporations dependent on the Sudan’s gum Arabic exports for manufacturing. Is this just another case of corporate America driving foreign policy instead of the other way around? asks a Lebanese businessman, lamenting the demise of his diamond buying enterprise in the Congo.

Meanwhile, relief organizations are concerned by another trend: US oil and mining corporations that hire mercenary protection forces. Tensions between the local black-clad Cobra militia in Congo Brazzaville and ex-US military personnel guarding US oil facilities in Cabinda are already at flash point. This is bound to spill over into our operations, predicts relief worker Andrew Edwards. It’s arrogant of them to have their own private armies on someone else’s national territory, and there seems to be no direction on this by the US government.

A Belgian diplomat is more blunt. How long can this go on before a dozen US security officers are killed? he wonders, recalling the death of 30 Belgian paratroopers in Kigali, Rwanda, in 1994. And what will the US administration’s reaction be then?

To many observers, this headlong plunge, driven by business and military pressure, forms a dangerous mix. But others, such as Rev. Jackson, are more confident. Africa has a lot to offer, the United States has a lot to offer, he predicted before a meeting with Kenya’s now re-elected President Daniel arap Moi, and the fact that we both have a lot to offer makes us want to be good friends and mutually-beneficial trading partners. Whether that sentiment becomes reality depends on at least three factors: corporate responsibility, a reduced US military presence, and a strong, clearly defined African policy. At the moment, hopes are high, especially since Albright’s tour and the announcement that President Clinton plans to visit Africa this year.

During her Africa tour in December, Albright’s announcement that Clinton’s Partnership for Economic Growth and Opportunity will provide a $90 million loan to develop new oil fields in Angola was encouraging. But a subsequent statement, made during a visit to a Chevron oil drilling platform, raised eyebrows. An additional $350 million from the US Export-Import Bank, she explained, may only support the purchase of US equipment, a move suggesting that the State Department is more interested in promoting US commercial interests than African self-reliance. Compared with China’s pending $150 million no-strings-attached grant to the Congo, the US requirement raises the specter of colonial thinking.

What is needed, muses another relief worker, who prefers to be unnamed, is a clearly defined US government policy dealing with African governments to ensure that the potpourri of American big business, military adventurism, and interference in the internal affairs of African countries doesn’t clash with the peasant population’s aspirations. Or else the consequences will be far greater than in Somalia.