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Mission impossible? Africom goes on a media charm offensive

We land at Stuttgart Airport in Germany on a cold Sunday afternoon in March and head straight to the comfortable four-star Pullman Stuttgart Fontana hotel. We've got the afternoon to ourselves. The next morning our week-long tour of the United States's Africa Command (Africom) begins, with flight, accommodation and briefings all courtesy of the US government.

This being a military operation, we are fetched promptly at 8.30am on Monday. Our first stop – the Kelley Barracks, home of the Africom headquarters and all US military operations here in Germany – is about 20 minutes away. As we approach the compound there are no obvious signs that this is a military base. It looks more like a luxury residential complex with well-groomed buildings and tidy gardens – only the tight security at the entrance and flags attract attention.

Our passports are collected and handed over to the military police manning the entrance. We're pointed to an area about 50 metres away, where our bus will park while security checks are done before allowing us

We're here on an Africom public relations exercise and we're told we're one of the last groups of African journalists – 10 South African reporters from eight media houses – to visit the Africa Command headquarters. In February, the Nigerians were on the same all-expenses paid tour.

This is no freebie shopping trip to Germany. Our days are packed with information-heavy briefings, some way too overloaded, we murmur to each other during brief breaks as we nearly overdose on caffeine in an effort to stay awake.

The military commanders we meet with each day make it clear that everything we're being told is "on background". In South African terms it refers to an off-the-record briefing – we are welcome to all the information, just not for attribution. Apart from the outgoing commander of Africom, General Carter Ham, we're only allowed to quote "US Africa Command officials."

Humanitarian assistance
In every discussion the message is delivered on point, and comes in no uncertain terms: the US is "in Africa by invitation; we don't impose ourselves on the continent" and "we believe in partnership instead of a unilateral action".

This effort, we are told, is to assist African militaries in capacity building, specialised training that includes fighting terrorism and any extremist groups that can destabilise governments, as well as training in specialised medical expertise, disease control and humanitarian assistance.

 

Rwandan soldiers prepare to board a US Air Force plane to the Darfur region of Sudan in July 2005. ( SSgt Bradley C Church)

Africom has a presence in strategic points on the continent – Somalia, Djibouti, Liberia, Guinea, Uganda and Kenya – with the aim of building and sustaining democracy on the continent, the commanders assure us.

Back home, though, nobody seems to be buying what Africom is selling. If the South African government had a choice, US troops would not be camping anywhere in Africa.

"We are opposed to militarisation of African politics through the establishment of military bases in Africa as part of the US's Africom initiative," reads an ANC paper presented by its international relations subcommittee at last December's Mangaung congress. "We have to play an active role in African networks campaigning against Africom."

At its policy conference in June last year the ANC resolved to lobby African countries in opposing Africom, calling on the US and military organisations like Nato to respect the territorial integrity and sovereignty of fellow African countries. It noted that the Africom programme is more than just the building of American bases on the continent but rather the involvement of US and Nato military on African soil, either through the prosecution of the so-called "war on terror" or through "promotion of democratisation".

Which, of course, is why we are all here. The US government wants us to see it their way.

Probing questions
General Carter Ham, the outgoing Africom commander, who has visited 42 African countries in the two years he's led Africom, doesn't shy away from questions when we finally get to talk to him on Thursday afternoon. Ham is a well-built military man with broad shoulders, shiny grey hair and a clear deep voice that oozes confidence despite the probing questions. He greets each journalist by hand, walking from one corner of the U-shaped table to the other side.

It's a strict one-hour group interview, with his subordinates observing what we, the journalists, consider the most important part of our tour, the only on-the-record interview we are allowed. I ask Ham if the US has been able to change the negative way Africa's biggest economy views the American presence on the continent.

"With South Africa, no, not officially," he says. "But I think we do have a good relationship with the South African National Defence Force. We've done exercises with them, which was very productive and very helpful for us. But to speak frankly there remains a high degree of scepticism in South Africa about Africom.

"We, too, at Africom, firmly believe in African solutions for African problems." Ham insists the US has Africa's best interests at heart and can help when asked. "When invited by a government to help we can provide the needed assistance. That doesn't mean we need to be in every place all the time. When South Africa says not so fast, we want to keep our military-to-military engagement at a relatively low level and South Africa says we're more comfortable dealing with our military counterparts in Washington,DC as opposed to at Africom, that's okay with me. It's not what I want, it's what's right for South Africa and only South Africa can decide that. We've got no intention of pushing ourselves into any place where we're not invited."

Ham's commanders do their best to make us believe what they tell us, though they stick to the brief.

"We support things that are for the common good. The strategy is to send a small US team of about 10 members to train, for instance, a company of 200 soldiers on several military skills," says one Africom official, adding that they seek "a light footprint and low-cost innovative approaches."

Another official stresses that Africom is comfortable being headquartered in Germany: "If you move Africom to the continent I think it would regionally and continentally send the wrong message. We're not looking at any place in Africa for location. We're very effective here. Travelling to Africa is not so bad."

 

(Supplied: Africom)

Extremist organisations
But at a few briefings, some get too relaxed and forget the memo.

"I don't think there are long-term plans for a military base in Africa, but there are talks," says one official. "It's really more about access. It's a long distance from here. We really need to have partners who can invite us to operate from their country."

Of the 5000 US forces currently in Africa, 2700 of them are in Djibouti, which is bordered by Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia. Americans started occupying the Camp Lemonnier military base in 2003 and it's used to run operations geared toward building security and stability in East Africa. It's home to Africom's Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa.

The US believes violent extremist organisations in North Africa and in East Africa are "the biggest threat to stability in the continent."

But it's the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) that Africom admits has been a difficult task – and it's happy to have African countries taking care of that. The US supports the Southern African Development Community intervention force in the DRC.

"I said, what about the DRC? And the answer without hesitation was 'Sir, the DRC is really hard.' And that was the extent of the analysis because it is exceedingly complex," Ham says.

The American military is so settled here in Germany – they have been here since the end of World War II – that Kelley Barracks has its own hotel and petrol station, houses for 50 families and flats big enough to accommodate thousands of others. Several restaurants trade inside the main base and it's evident as we scout for the ideal lunch spot that they don't run short of customers.

Communications officials
Kelley Barracks is a mini America, with day-care services for military families, a theatre showing American, German and European productions, a fitness centre with a basketball court and a craft and hobby shop that sells pottery and woodwork. We're told there are 20 000 US military families living in Stuttgart.

At the German-American Centre, which is part of the James F Byrnes Institute in Stuttgart, those briefing us are at pains to convince us that, regardless of the previous "army go home" campaign, Germans don't have problems with the presence of American troops: "Even if there are darker sides the relationship is good. Right now it's getting so normal to be influenced by America. The sense of occupation is not that acute."

But during this presentation at the institute I notice that one of the American soldiers assigned to our group changed from his military uniform into civilian clothes.

"Why did he change clothes?" I ask one of the communications officials who travelled with us from South Africa. Because he didn't have an answer we ask the officer.

 

Members of the13th Marine Expeditionary Unit prepare to attach a Harrier engine to a CH-53D helicopter for transport to the USS Boxer for Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti. (SSgt Donald Bohanner,US Marine Corps )

It's because American troops are careful not to attract attention that might result in animosity towards them, he says. So it's not just the Africans who have trouble with an American presence in their country.

We leave Stuttgart on Friday with lots of information and only a handful of quotes that we can attribute to an actual name. Despite that, it's obvious the Americans are doing their best to be seen as the good guys. But the jury is still out on whether African politicians will buy into it.


A strong presence on the continent

The United States Africa Command (Africom) was established in 2007 as a combatant command responsible for all US department of defence operations, exercises, and security co-operation on the African continent. Africom gets involved in land, sea, air and intelligence operations together with militaries from countries that host US troops and provides skills training such as medical and technical training for operations.

Africom's subordinate commands include US Army Africa based in Vicenza Italy; US Air Forces Africa based in Ramstein Air Base in Germany; US Marine Corps Forces Africa in Stuttgart, Germany; US Naval Forces Africa in Naples, Italy; and US Special Operations Command Africa, also in Stuttgart.

Africom reports to the US secretary of defence and it's currently led by General David Rodriguez, who took over from General Carter Ham in April.

Its key focus is to counter ­al-Qaeda and affiliates as well as other extremists groups, advance regional co-operation and security sector reform and support initiatives to support peace and security in Africa.

Some activities on the continent include support to African partners countering the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) in Uganda, Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Africom's work also includes helping African partners to build capacity – from training them in how to conduct humanitarian response operations, to promoting HIV and Aids prevention programmes – so they can eventually conduct these missions on their own.

Africom's headquarters are in Stuttgart, Germany, but the command has a presence in Djibouti, where its main African military base is situated, as well as in Somalia, Uganda, Liberia, Guinea and Kenya. The command also does joint exercises with many African countries.

Four African countries with which Africom enjoys strong military relations include Ethiopia, the largest troop contributor for East Africa's regional peacekeeping; Kenya, a principal partner for regional security and diplomacy (and because Kenya has agreed to prosecute piracy suspects); Uganda, which, with the US, is hunting down Joseph Kony's LRA rebels; and Djibouti because of its strategic location.  

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Mmanaledi Mataboge
Guest Author

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