Washington has 50 diplomatic missions in Africa, more than any other country and one of the few with an ambassador in Lesotho and Swaziland. But although American diplomats may straddle the continent, the Pentagon has been much more focused.
This week the United States warned its citizens that the Islamic State may target them at the posher malls and hotels in South Africa, but its growing military assets on the continent remain far to the north.
Since 1998, when al-Qaeda bombed the United States embassy in Nairobi, military attention has been mainly on Kenya and Uganda, along with a troop base in the tiny country of Djibouti. Then came Ebola and, in 2014, army and medical personnel found themselves in West Africa, containing an outbreak that might otherwise have spread around the globe.
At the signing of a new defence deal with Senegal last month, the US ambassador to Dakar, Jim Zumwalt, explained how an epidemic led to bigger things. “During the Ebola crisis both governments recognised that our security relationship has grown, and we needed a stronger legal framework to work together in response to unexpected challenges.” This, he said, includes the “terrorist threat”.
The US is established as a donor in cases of natural disaster and there is nothing suggesting its Ebola response was initiated with ulterior motives. But it could yet be seen as having been a cover for military intentions.
West Africa has long been seen as a problem, with corruption making it difficult to engage beyond oil and diplomacy. The US state department has voiced its concern over poor progress in defeating Boko Haram. Boko Haram now operates across Nigeria, Chad, Burkina Faso and Cameroon.
Senegal’s neighbour Guinea Bissau has been labelled a “narco state”, for allegedly warehousing drugs for transport to Europe and the US.
By contrast, Djibouti has been a blessing. President Ismaïl Guelleh runs his country as a dictatorship and has no time for radical Islam.
But there are signs the love affair with Washington may be in trouble. Last year Guelleh forced the US from one of its coastal bases and handed the site to the Chinese navy. The 69-year-old president makes regular visits to Paris for medical treatment, adding to worries of what might happen.
In December Djibouti police opened fire on unarmed protesters and a US state department human rights report noted “harsh prison conditions, arbitrary arrest” and a “denial of fair public trial”.
In an example of how diplomats phrase things, the report says Guelleh and his government engage in “unlawful deprivation of life”.
But dependence on the goodwill of an increasingly erratic president can silence even a superpower.
Djibouti and Uganda are signatories to the International Criminal Court and, like South Africa, they have a duty to arrest Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir on sight. The ICC has issued a warrant for al-Bashir on charges of crimes against humanity and when he attended the inauguration of President Yoweri Museveni in Kampala last month the US ambassador and his entourage walked out. Museveni described the ICC as a “bunch of useless people”.
Yet there was no such pique a few days earlier when the Sudanese leader sat in the same room as the US delegation attending a similar event for Guelleh. The US state department merely issued a note of concern.
Last year South Africa had its own problem with al-Bashir when he attended an African Union summit in Pretoria, leading to uproar by human rights groups and a finding by the Supreme Court of Appeal that he should have been arrested.
And so to Senegal, which saw its first democratic transfer of power in 1999 when Abdoulaye Wade defeated the sitting president. Wade, in turn, stepped down in 2012 when he lost to the current leader, Macky Sall.
The country enjoys good marks on every human rights index – with a freer media rating than Kenya – whereas Djibouti ranks among the most oppressive.
The US Africa Command (Africom) is based in Germany and maintains a low profile but is known to have “drone capacity” in several countries. And although Obama’s rhetoric is softer than George Bush’s, US defence spending is now higher than during the Vietnam War or under Ronald Reagan. This holds true even when you take out inflation.
In Kenya, concern has shifted from al-Qaeda to al-Shabab, the group that attacked Nairobi’s Westgate shopping centre in 2013, leaving 67 people dead and more than 170 wounded. Last year they murdered 178 students and teachers at a university near the small town of Garissa.
In Nigeria, Boko Haram kidnapped 276 girls from a school at Chibok in northeastern Nigeria and, more than two years on, the army has been unable to find the vast majority of the girls, let alone deal with the militants.
Countries like Senegal and Cameroon have their own problems with terror groups but nowhere near the same scale. Unconfirmed reports from Africom suggest the US is looking at options in nine other countries across East, West and Central Africa.
In Dakar, ambassador Zumwalt says the new deal with Senegal “sets the stage for increased security co-operation”. And on the Horn, US ambassador Tom Kelly has said there will be no change in the “commitment of the United States to remain Djibouti’s partner in our shared goal of ridding this region of the evils of terrorism”.
It seem clear that Washington is spreading its bets.