At the establishment of the African Union (AU) in May 2001, discourses about human security and counter terrorism were ubiquitous both globally and on the continent. In Africa, the experience of the conflicts in Sierra Leone and the Great Lakes region weighed heavily on the continent’s people, and on the new body. The newly-formed AU thus sought to institute measures that would enhance peace and security and ensure human development, even allowing for the possibility of the organisation intervening in member states. Article Four of the AU’s Constitutive Act stated that intervention in a member country could be endorsed by the body in the event that the government of that country severely repressed its population; the prevention of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide were explicitly mentioned.
Within months of the creation of the AU, the September 2001 World Trade Centre bombings in New York took place, forcing an additional imperative onto the AU’s agenda. As a result, the AU has, for the past decade and a half, focused a great deal of effort on counter terrorism (in some instances to the detriment of member state populations). Coordination on counter terrorism has thus been enhanced between member states, and, worryingly, training, skills transfers, and direct deployment of troops from foreign powers – especially the US and France – had been sought to address that has been, to some extent, an exaggerated threat. This has unwittingly allowed, again, the mixing of foreign interests with those of the continent, often allowing foreign agendas to dominate.
In the past few years, a new form of foreign role on the continent has begun to become established, and it is this that we want to highlight as a challenge for the African Union, the continent as a whole, and relationships between African states. We refer here to the phenomenon of the creation of forward military deployment bases hosted by various African states, which, it might be argued, poses, for us, a challenge in terms of continental sovereignty.
The problem of bases
Often promoted by military strategists as reducing the ‘tyranny of distance’, forward deployment bases allow the forward deployment of both troops and equipment, allowing for quicker response times, and a shortening of distance, especially in terms of the need to refuel. This strategy had initially been the forte of the US military – especially after the European war of the mid-twentieth century, or the Second World War. As documented by Nick Turse, US military bases (including forward operating sites, cooperative security locations, and contingency locations) in Africa number around fifty, at least. The US base in Diego Garcia, for example, played a key role in the 2003 Iraqi invasion, with minimal flythrough/docking rights required from other countries.
US bases, compounds, port facilities and fuel bunkers are in thirty-four African countries, including in regional hegemons Kenya, Ethiopia and Algeria. Under the guise of countering terrorism, and through joint partnerships, Washington has infiltrated continental security organisations and has touted the idea of establishing on-the ground liaison offices. American military officials and policy makers view the continent as a full-scale battlefield in the competition against China, and through promoting regionalism, US officials are successfully circumventing continental institutions including the AU. To date, this has not yet been a major factor in interstate conflicts on the continent, but US cooperation has sort to mould partner countries to share its stance on foreign issues. Further, the US uses these bases to carry out activities on other continents; drones operating from Chadelley base in Djibouti have been deployed in Yemen and Syria, for example. This then inserts African states into conflicts unrelated to them, their regions or the continent.
Many other states followed the US strategy – albeit on a smaller scale, especially as international rivalry among global powers (or aspirant global powers) intensified. This lily pad strategy is now utilised by the US, Russia, China, France, and even smaller countries such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Iran. This is likely to intensify, especially since advances in technology have increased the efficiencies and efficacy of submarines, thus making it more difficult to deploy carrier vessels as a means of power projection. Further, the advancements in missile defence, and the decreasing costs of obtaining such technology has meant that long-haul flights, as a means of strategic lift, have become riskier; the offense-defence balance in some ways favours the defensive power.
These bases, especially those maintained by global powers, have impaired the AU from implementing indigenous continental solutions, especially those requiring inclusiveness and mediation. Mali is significant in this regard, especially since the presence of French troops stationed there for Operation Barkhane had stymied efforts by Malian civil society to include the Islamist Ansar Dine (now Group for the Protection of Islam and Muslims) in the political process, thus prolonging the insurgency in the north. Similarly, UAE bases in Somaliland incentivise and formalise the fragmentation of Somalia, with negative regional consequences. In the coming decades, problems such as these will be exacerbated, as countries such as India, Iran, and Saudi Arabia construct military bases in African countries, and because the sub-regional coordination mechanisms such as the Multi-National Joint Task Force in the Lake Chad Basin, which have had successes, are more proficient at dealing with cross-border insurgency. It is noteworthy that these initiatives are often continental efforts undertaken by sub-regional states, frequently in opposition to the intentions and programmes of global powers.
There is a great need for Africans to be concerned about these developments and this focus on the creation of bases, because of their impact on the populations of various countries, and implications for state as well as continental sovereignty. Diego Garcia, the base that set the trend for this phenomenon in Africa, illustrates the rather drastic potential impacts of these. The island’s population has been reduced to one lacking rights and freedoms, with many of its members forcibly removed from their homes and deported – most to Mauritius and Seychelles, not allowed the right to return. Further, the presence of the base has ensured that the African Union has little influence over the island; it is still de facto ruled as a British territory.
Similarly, the ‘global war on terror’, coupled with the rise of China, has seen global powers seeking to re-enter or strengthen their presence on the continent, with negative consequences. Both the US and France have constructed new bases in Africa, with China, the UAE and Saudi Arabia following suit. Under the guise of fighting terrorism, they often have other interests, such as France’s bases in Niger, which are more an attempt to protect French interests around Niger’s vast uranium resources.
Last year (2017), China completed the construction of a base in Djibouti, with Saudi Arabia (2017), France, and even Japan (whose base was constructed in 2011, and for which there are plans for extension) maintaining bases in the small country. Eritrea’s Assab port is being used by both Iran and the UAE (2015) to operate bases from, while Turkey (2017) is upgrading the Suakin Island in Sudan under the guise of preserving ancient Turkish relics. Significantly, the Horn of Africa is adjacent to the Bab Al-Mandab and Hormuz straits, through which over twenty per cent of world trade traverses, and it is militarily strategic as it allows control over much of the Indian Ocean. Further, it is noteworthy that almost all the bases not operated by the US and France were constructed after 2010, illustrating that the intentions behind these have everything to do with power projection and little around counter terrorism. The UAE base in Assab, too, is significant in this regard; Abu Dhabi has used it to dispatch armaments and troops from both the UAE and other Saudi coalition countries, for their military campaign in Yemen, leading to dire humanitarian consequences and the likely fragmentation of that country.
Bases and sovereignty
The construction of these military bases has undermined both domestic and continental sovereignty. The UAE base in Somaliland’s Berbera port (2016), for example, heralds the end of the project to ensure a unified Somalia. Already, Somaliland possesses a relatively strong security force; the base construction and consequent support by the UAE will ensure that Mogadishu will not be able to extend control over Hargeisa. This will likely lead to more conflict, especially as Puntland begins to reassert its autonomy, and as al-Shabab exploits these differences to increase its influence.
Moreover, the UAE’s Assab base, coupled with the current Qatari blockade, has threatened to reignite the Eritrean-Djibouti border conflict, since Djibouti’s decision to sever ties with Qatar in light of its close relationship with Riyadh saw Doha withdrawing its peacekeepers (2017); while Emirati support for Eritrea emboldened Asmara to redeploy its troops to the contested Doumeira islands, which the UN designates as belonging to Djibouti.
Further, this race to create bases (along with other geopolitical agendas) has seen foreign countries often support African strongmen (not surprising, considering that some of these foreign states themselves are dictatorships), thus enabling the abuse of human rights and stunting continental efforts at finding solutions. The current Libyan imbroglio, for example, has seen countries such as Egypt and Russia support General Khalifa Haftar, who has promised basing rights in the event of his victory. This should be of great concern as it undermines both the AU and the neighbourhood initiatives that are attempting to resolve the conflict.
The AU and bases
This trend threatens to, in future, undermine the African Union’s already-tenuous sovereignty, especially since the direct influence of foreign powers, in the form of these lily pad bases, threatens to inspire more interstate conflicts. Tension has already risen in Ethiopia in response to Eritrea’s hosting of numerous bases, while both countries expressed their opposition to the Berbera base in Somaliland. The consequent upgrade in arms in these states will ensure that interstate conflicts, such as those between Ethiopia and Eritrea, become more precarious, and dilute the AU’s ability to persuade states to negotiate with each other. Worryingly, basing rights are often coupled with multibillion-dollar arms deal packages. These will not only ensure that cross-border interstate conflicts, such as those between Ethiopia and Eritrea, follow a more violent and destructive path, but also that regimes are once again able to violently suppress dissent within their populations. This ‘authoritarian upgrading’ was a major factor engendering the militancy problem that the AU had been dealing with since its inception.
In addition, as can be observed with the UAE’s use of the Assab base to deploy troops to Yemen, Africa is increasingly being used as a staging ground from which to deploy troops to other conflict arenas. Notably, the UAE, in 2015, sought to strong arm Djibouti to allow Emirati and coalition aircraft the use of its territory as a base for the Yemeni operation. Djibouti and Abu Dhabi subsequently severed diplomatic ties, but the UAE found a willing substitute in Eritrea.
The AU will need to increase its capacity (a challenge in a general sense) to have a stronger focus on preventing foreign exploitation and interstate conflicts – more critical threats than terrorism. The institution has had many successes in the fight against the militancy of non-state actors, especially in the area of promoting sub-regional state coordination. The joint multinational task force amongst Lake Chad basin states and the G5 Sahel (Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Chad) are welcome steps in ensuring neighbourhood solutions to cross-border militancy, although though these still need to be coupled with more focus on inclusivity. Even with the G5 Sahel, which has engendered coordination between the five respective Sahelian states, France’s maintenance of forward deployment bases in these countries has ensured that Paris has greatly influenced the formation, structure and objectives of the force. This is having, and will have, dire consequences for, especially, Mali because the GSIM has been excluded from negotiations, ensuring that instability in the North remains persistent. The Liptako-Gourma corridor partnership between Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso will see better results as the French are not formally involved in it, and because it relates more to border security than to domestic state politics.
However, partnerships such as these will be difficult to initiate in future conflicts influenced by outside powers, and which involve sub-regional hegemons. This is especially since, unlike the case of these joint forces, regional organisations will be paralysed if the belligerents are sub-regional powers. The AU will need to improve its mediation and coercive capacity or risk being side-lined as is the case in Libya. Even in Burundi, where the major continental powers advised against a third term for Pierre Nkurunziza, his regime is still operating, despite AU threats and sanctions.