Africom still struggling to win SA's blessing
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United States Africa Command (Africom) is a combatant organ of the US defence department established specifically to work with militaries of African countries to strengthen their defence capabilities through skills training, joint exercises and sometimes conducts military operations when requested to by an African country.
In an interview with South African journalists touring Africom's headquarters in Stuttgart Germany, the organisation's commander, General Carter Ham, said Africom and the US government are yet to successfully change the hostile attitude some Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries have against Africom, particularly South Africa – one of the key countries in the continent that advocates for an African solution for African challenges.
"There remains a high degree of skepticism within South Africa," Ham said. "And we too believe in an African solution for Africa, but we think we can help. When invited by governments we think we can work together well."
The outgoing Africom Commander however said the organisation respects South Africa's position on the presence of America's forces on the continent.
"We don't have to go where we are not wanted. We recognise sovereignty. We've got no intention of pushing ourselves into a place where we're not wanted."
Ham said though the US has "not officially" succeeded in changing South Africa's attitude and that Africom has got "a good relationship with the South African National Defence Force [Sandf]. When South Africa says not so, fast we'll maintain the military-to-military relationship that we have with the Sandf."
Botswana willing host
Throughout the week Africom leaders told of how they regard the Sandf as one of their key strategic partners in Africa because of the defence force's capability and South Africa's influence in Africa.
As Ham was giving an interview in Germany, ambassador Chris Dell, the Africom civilian deputy commander, was in South Africa.
Key SADC countries including South Africa are uncomfortable with having United States forces based in Africa for fear that the US might be seeking to take control of the continent. The hostility has spread to Botswana which has for years been suspected of willing to host an Africom military base.
Last year former ANC deputy secretary general Thandi Modise was quoted as having told the Botswana National Front that there are some leaders within SADC who "want to host people who want to hurt us. They think as long as they can get funding from these western people they are fine. But I can tell you that we are not happy at all".
The diplomatic cable that Wikileaks published two years ago claiming that Botswana was interested in hosting Africom troops also increased concern among SADC countries.
On Thursday Ham strongly denied that Africom is seeking to build a home in Botswana.
"We have been in Botswana and Botswana is a very good partner of ours, but there are absolutely no discussions about setting up a military base there."
Relationship with South Africa
Africom appears to have a good relationship with east and west African countries, with it's largest force of around 2 000 troops based in Djibouti, where Ham said they are helping to strengthen east African defence forces.
The relationship with SADC is however yet to blossom into what Africom wishes to have.
"Broadly in the [SADC] region I'd like to see the relationship growing. That's tough for us right now because of Zimbabwe, but I think we are on a pretty positive trajectory with most of SADC countries," said the outgoing Africom commander.
As for an Africom relationship with South Africa, Ham believes there is an opportunity for an improvement.
"We are not always going to agree, we are two big countries, but that's okay," he said.
He however said for the majority of big issues such as democracy and human rights the US and Africom are happy with the relationship with South Africa.
Africom's general objective is to protect US interests in African countries. Ham however said the US is not competing with other countries that have taken military interest in Africa such as China.
"We are competing for economic position and influence, but I don't see competition in a military way. I wouldn't see it as adversarial relations, it's more economic and diplomatic relations. "