Bush and Africa

[Editors’ Note: This essay is an excerpt from the excellent new book PowerTrip: U.S. Unilateralism and Global Strategy After September 11, part of the Open Media series published by Seven Stories Press. The book is edited by John Feffer and includes essays by writers and scholars from Foreign Policy in Focus, including William Hartung, Mel Goodman and Ahmed Rashid.]

It was a powerfully symbolic gift, coming as it did from one of the world’s poorer countries to the world’s richest. In June 2002, a Maasai village in Kenya presented its most precious resource, fifteen head of cattle, to the United States as an expression of solidarity for the tragedy of September 11. “To the people of America, we give these cows to help you,” read banners at the ceremonial handover of the cattle from Maasai elders to the U.S. ambassador.183 The gift was all the more poignant since the U.S. government still has not compensated the families of the Kenyan victims of terrorism who died in al-Qaeda’s1998 bombing of the U.S. embassy in Nairobi.

This was the latest of a long string of gestures of sympathy from different parts of Africa. Immediately after September 11, the Organization of African Union (OAU, since renamed African Union) expressed its “full solidarity” and “deepest condolence,” and African leaders, even those usually at odds with the United States, offered their support. Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi sent condolences for the “horrific” attacks and offered to donate his blood to the U.S. victims. Sudan, which once housed Osama bin Laden, offered cooperation in tracking al-Qaeda terrorists. Ethiopia, Djibouti, Nigeria, and Kenya, among others, shut down or froze suspected terrorist financial networks operating in their countries, while once-leftist Eritrea offered the United States use of its territory and port as a military base to fight terrorism. Nigeria, home of Africa’s largest Muslim population, drafted antiterrorist legislation, while South Africa offered its support for U.S.-led diplomatic efforts to fight terrorism. And during an African summit in Dakar in October 2001, Senegalese president Abdoulaye Wade proposed an African Pact Against Terrorism and created a regional counterterrorism intelligence center, with U.S. assistance.

At the same time, several African governments opportunistically hitched their own counterinsurgency campaigns to Washington’s global war on terrorism. In Africa’s longest-running civil war, the Sudanese government labeled Christian and animist separatists as terrorists; Eritrean president Isaias Afewerki, a liberator turned increasingly dictatorial, used the post­September 11 period to crack down on dissent; and Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe termed his largely nonviolent political opponents “terrorists.” Close U.S. allies Daniel arap Moi in Kenya (voted out of office in December 2002) and Olusegun Obasanjo in Nigeria tried to bolster their own hold on power by forging closer ties with the U.S. military.

But in this mix of genuine sympathy and political opportunism, many Africans were wary, as well, of being too closely associated with Washington’s war on terrorism. African states feared repercussions both from and on their own Muslim populations. Roughly 40 percent of Africans are Muslims with large concentrations in North Africa, the East African coast, and West African countries such as Nigeria and Senegal. In the days after September 11, there were scattered street celebrations in Muslim strongholds in northern Nigeria and Somalia, and subsequent anti-American protests in Sudan, South Africa, and Kenya. African leaders also feared that the United States would pursue its war on terrorism throughout the continent. By January 2002, as U.S. military attacks in Afghanistan wound down, the United States turned its sights on a handful of countries suspected of harboring al-Qaeda terrorists, including Libya, Egypt, Sudan, and Somalia. “These governments are afraid they might be the next U.S. target, and are therefore clearly keen to show they are cooperating in the war against terrorism,” commented a diplomat stationed in Nairobi.

Somalia, with its lack of a stable central government, was most clearly in Washington’s crosshairs. Its transitional government hastily declared bin Laden persona non grata and arrested eight Iraqis and a Palestinian as terrorist suspects. The detentions were largely symbolic; as one U.S. government adviser noted, those detained were probably “a few poor Iraqi migrants looking for cooking jobs in Mogadishu.” Indeed, the United States, while continuing to deny Somalia diplomatic recognition, took extremely crippling measures against this impoverished country with only rudimentary state functions. Contending that it may have ties to al-Qaeda, the United States branded as “terrorist” the indigenous group al-Itihad al-Islami (AIAI), which is fighting for an Islamic state. Most damaging, the United States closed down al-Barakat, Somalia’s biggest employer and largest remittance bank-cum-telephone service, thereby cutting off both communications and $500 million a year sent home by Somali expatriates. The United States also severed Somalia’s Internet links, monitored international air flights, and sent naval forces to barricade the coast. As in Afghanistan, the United States sought the use of local and regional surrogate forces. For instance, the Somali Restoration and Reconciliation Council (SRRC), an Ethiopian-backed group, helped the United States identify possible terrorist bases. The leader of SRRC is the son of Mohammed Aidid, the Somali clan leader that U.S. Special Forces were pursuing so unsuccessfully in the early 1990s. September 11 has created many strange bedfellows, but this Somalia campaign netted no significant al-Qaeda operatives.

Africa, of course, has not been untouched by terrorism, some homegrown, some linked to international networks. As early as 1990, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak began warning that international terrorism represented a bigger danger than war. In 1995, Islamic fundamentalists targeted Mubarak in an assassination attempt that may have been orchestrated by al-Qaeda. In the wake of September 11, Egyptian police rounded up twenty-two professionals who belonged to the banned Muslim Brotherhood, while Tunisia and other countries have sought to crack down on their own brands of politicized Islam. Algeria, for instance, has been fighting a decade-long war against Muslim fundamentalists. “Each North African country has its own bin Laden,” editorialized the French-language Arab weekly Jeune Afrique in the wake of September 11. At a 1992 meeting in Algiers, the OAU passed a resolution at its meeting calling for enhanced cooperation in fighting terrorism, and in 1999, again in Algiers, the organization adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Combating of Terrorism.

Over the last decade, Sudan has been a major U.S. concern, labeled a “rogue state,” denied diplomatic recognition, and placed off-limits to U.S. investors. From 1991 to 1996, bin Laden was based in the Sudan, and the al-Qaeda leader claimed his operatives were involved in the 1993 killing of American marines in Mogadishu, Somalia. The United States also viewed Sudan as an operational base for al-Qaeda’s August 7, 1998, simultaneous bombings of the embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 224 and injured thousands, mainly Africans. In retaliation, the Clinton administration launched a cruise missile attack, destroying what it claimed was an al-Qaeda chemical weapons facility, but which subsequent investigations found was a pharmaceutical factory. Yet during the 1990s, there were diplomatic crosscurrents, as Sudanese officials met secretly with the FBI and CIA in an effort to combat terrorism, even offering, according to some reports, to help apprehend bin Laden. After September 11, the Khartoum government immediately announced it would cooperate in the search for Islamic terrorists and revealed publicly that U.S. intelligence agents were already operating in Sudan.

In the United States, however, these steps toward engagement with Sudan’s National Islamic Front government are opposed by an unlikely coalition of religious right organizations and African-American churches, human rights groups, and labor unions. They are backing Christian guerrilla groups in southern Sudan who, for nearly half a century, have been waging a civil war demanding self-determination. Complicating the political landscape, U.S. corporations, circumscribed by the embargo, have watched with frustration as Chinese and Canadian petroleum companies invested in Sudan’s largely unexplored but potentially large oil reserves. Once again, powerful but strange bedfellows have pushed Sudan onto the Bush administration’s Africa agenda.

Libya, the North African country Washington has long considered at the top of its terrorism list, did not make it into President Bush’s “axis of evil.” Following the terrorist attacks, Qaddafi quickly declared that “the United States has the right to vengeance” and then revealed that Libya had been providing intelligence about al-Qaeda to the United States. Yet relations between the two countries remain far from normalized. In 2003, the Bush administration extended for another year the strict trade, investment, and travel sanctions imposed on Libya in 1986 (in retaliation for the suspected Libyan bombing of a Berlin discotheque) and rejected Libya’s draft statement apologizing for the 1989 terrorist bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. Washington’s rejection of this statement, which had been accepted by both Britain and the victims’ families, delayed both Libya’s removal from the State Department’s list of countries that sponsor terrorism and Libya’s payment of compensation to the families, reported to total $2.7 billion. After Iraq, one political analyst told the New York Times, “Libya is either No. 2 or No. 3 on the list of nations the hard-liners want to go after.”

The State Department’s 2001 report on terrorism accurately stated that “most terrorist attacks in Africa stem from internal civil unrest and spillover from regional wars” in, for instance, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. However, the report noted that both al-Qaeda and the Lebanese Hizballah “have a presence in Africa and continue to exploit Africa’s permissive operating environment-porous borders, conflict, lax financial systems, and the wide availability of weapons-to expand and strengthen their networks.” The State Department put several African insurgencies on its list of terrorist groups, including the Sudanese-backed Lord’s Resistance Army in northern Uganda and the Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone.

As U.S. preparations for war against Iraq mounted, the Horn of Africa became an increasingly important outpost in the war on terrorism. A Navy command ship was stationed off the Horn’s coast on an “open-ended mission” to “track, frustrate and eliminate” al-Qaeda terrorists. By early 2003, some eight hundred U.S. special operations forces and CIA paramilitaries and fifteen hundred marines were operating from an abandoned French Foreign Legion post in tiny Djibouti, just across the Gulf of Aden from Yemen, Osama bin Laden’s ancestral homeland and the suspected hideaway of al-Qaeda operatives. This first U.S. base in Africa in the post­Cold War era is also useful for observing suspected terrorists in neighboring Somalia.

Eastern Africa has also continued to be the site of al-Qaeda attacks. In November 2002, al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for a suicide car bombing at an Israeli-owned beach hotel in Mombasa (killing ten Kenyans, three Israelis, and the three bombers) and for the failed attempt to shoot down an Israeli charter jet with shoulder-launched missiles. Coming just weeks after the deadly bombing of a tourist nightclub in Bali, the Mombasa incident was part of what an al-Qaeda spokesman vowed would be a widening war against the “Christian-Jewish alliance” of the United States and Israel and its other allies. Indeed, within a few weeks, the United States and other countries issued tourism travel warnings of a terrorist plot against the Muslim resort island Zanzibar.

One year after the September 11 attacks, the lead story in the New York Times proclaimed that “Africa, the neglected stepchild of American diplomacy, is rising in strategic importance to Washington policy makers, and one word sums up the reason: oil.” In early 2002, the newly created African Oil Policy Initiative Group (AOPIG), composed of congressional members, administration officials, industry executives, consultants, and investors, drew up a blueprint for U.S. energy and mineral resource interests in Africa. As House Subcommittee on Africa chair Ed Royce (R-CA) explained, “African oil should be treated as a priority for U.S. national security post 9-11, and I think that post 9-11 it’s occurred to all of us that our traditional sources of oil are not as secure as we once thought they were.”

U.S. imports of crude oil from West Africa-Nigeria, Angola, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon-equal 15 percent of total imports and are set to rise to 25 percent by 2015, according to the National Intelligence Council. In his 2001 National Energy Policy Report, U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney projected that the area would be “one of the fastest-growing sources of oil and gas for the American market.” Expansion plans include reopening the U.S. consulate in Equatorial Guinea, where off-shore reserves have been recently discovered, a new embassy in oil-rich Angola, construction of a pipeline linking southern Chad to Atlantic ports, increased military exchanges with West African countries, and a possible new U.S. naval base on Sao Tome and Principe, a tiny, two-island nation strategically located in the Atlantic oil-bearing basin of the Gulf of Guinea.

With civil war and unrest in Colombia and Venezuela, upheavals in the Middle East and war looming with Iraq, Africa was playing “an increasingly important role in our energy security,” Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham told the House International Relations Committee in June 2002. Shortly afterward, Secretary of State Powell was dispatched to visit Gabon, Sao Tome, and Angola, oil-rich countries that rarely, if ever, have been visited by a high-level U.S. official. Powell avoided Nigeria, the most important African oil supplier to the United States, where popular resistance continues to grow against oil companies in the Niger Delta region. Quietly, however, the Bush administration has increased its military ties to Nigeria, while pressuring it to pull out of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), the quota and price-setting cartel. As one oil industry official explained, “There is a long-term strategy from the U.S. government to weaken OPEC’s hold on the market and one way to do that is to peel off certain countries.” By summer 2002, Bush’s Africa policy was characterized as “build the military and extract the oil.”

While most current military training programs predate September 11, the United States has sought to strengthen relations with African police, military, and security forces in a bid to identify Islamic radicals and secure access to oil resources. At present, nearly every sub-Saharan country receives International Military Education and Training (IMET) funding. U.S. Special Forces, through the African Crisis Response Initiative started in 1997, have trained eight thousand troops from Senegal, Ghana, Mali, and other countries. Both South Africa and Kenya received lists of suspects from the United States and agreed to cooperate.

In Kenya, a key U.S. ally from the Cold War era and central to any U.S. antiterrrorist operations against Somalia, three thousand U.S. Marines participated with Kenyan troops in large-scale military exercises in February 2002. In the run-up to the December 2002 presidential elections, many Kenyans feared the expanded focus on security and counterterrorism would push democratization to the back burner. Indeed, during President Moi’s final state visit to Washington in early December 2002, President Bush made no public appeal for peaceful and fair elections. Despite Washington’s official silence, Kenya’s December elections took place without violence or corruption, and the next day Moi turned over power to opposition candidate Mwai Kibaki.

While Kenya’s political transition was smooth, U.S. policy makers worried that domestic conflict and social collapse in a number of African countries would provide opportunities for Islamic fundamentalists to recruit or to exploit criminal financial networks. As Africa Subcommittee Chair Ed Royce argued, “The general weakness of African governments as well as the civil strife, which exists in several countries, makes parts of the continent hospitable grounds for terrorist operations.” The U.S. focus on security has brought African states with Muslim populations under close scrutiny, while military training is being expanded, new intelligence relationships are being forged, and alleged African links to global criminal networks are being probed. After September 11, reports began to surface of possible al-Qaeda connections to criminal gangs in Mozambique, diamond smugglers in Sierra Leone, and black-market purchases of raw uranium and money laundering with tanzanite gems in Tanzania. South Africa closed a number of bank accounts because of possible terrorist connections and, along with several other states, rushed through legislation on money laundering and monitoring telecommunications.

But this threat has not prompted the U.S. military to intervene directly in Africa. Post-Vietnam and post-Mogadishu (where eighteen marines were killed during a UN mission in 1993), Bush continues to oppose sending U.S. forces into Africa’s several civil wars. Instead, the United States is promoting regional peacekeeping forces led by South Africa and Nigeria, a view reflected as well in the peace and security initiative of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD).


A growing discomfort with U.S. unilateralism has increased anti-American sentiment across the continent and prompted calls for UN rather than U.S. leadership in the war on terrorism. Within just two weeks of the September 2001 attacks, Egyptian President Mubarak warned that Washington’s “cure should not be more bitter than the illness.” Terrorism is far from the most critical problem confronting the continent. Poverty, AIDS, protracted violent conflicts between countries, debt burdens, and the breakdown of states have all ranked higher on the agendas of African leaders and regional organizations. As Salih Booker, director of the U.S.-based policy organization Africa Action, wrote, “Whether measured by numbers killed or nations wounded, by economies upended or families crushed, the AIDS pandemic is a deadlier global threat than that posed by terrorist groups. The war on AIDS is more important than the war on terrorism.” Yet, after September 11, the U.S. government began to look at Africa almost exclusively through the lenses of terrorism and oil.

When the Bush administration took office, it signaled that Africa would remain a low priority, economically and strategically. During the Cold War, the U.S. foreign aid and alliances in Africa were largely aimed at checking Soviet and Chinese influence. In the 1990s, the Clinton administration proclaimed that free market prescriptions-trade, not aid; export-led growth; and structural adjustment policies-would define its relations with Africa. But less U.S. foreign direct investment goes to Africa than any other world region-less than one percent of the total in 2001 -and over half of that goes to the oil industry. And Clinton’s much-touted trade access bill, the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), helped increase African exports (mainly textiles) to the United States for a handful of countries, including Mauritius, Lesotho, Mozambique, and Kenya.

The Bush administration continues to press African economies to privatize, open up to foreign capital, develop “good governance” practices, and uphold agreements to end conflicts in the Congo and elsewhere. At the same time, the administration has modestly increased development assistance, while favoring neoliberal protégés such as Mozambique, South Africa, and Nigeria. U.S. contributions still lag far behind Europe, and by mid-2002, the $700 million that the United States had committed for the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative had yet to be disbursed. Most of the Bush administration’s $2.2 billion in total aid to Africa for 2003 was not appropriated by Congress.230 Meanwhile, the United States provided only a modest contribution of $200 million to the UN Global AIDS Fund, which estimates its needs at $7 to $10 billion.

By the time Americans commemorated the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks, African support and goodwill, as symbolized in the gift of cattle, had largely vanished. The Bush administration’s unilateralist policies combined with its aggressive and narrow obsession with security and oil in Africa have increasingly alienated many Africans. In September 2002, Africa’s most respected statesman, Nelson Mandela, charged in uncharacteristically bitter language that “the attitude of the United States is a threat to world peace.” Mandela, who had supported the U.S. war in Afghanistan, lashed out at Bush officials for pursuing war in Iraq. He went a step further, charging that in the eyes of many, U.S. actions-from not paying compensation to Africans killed or injured in the two embassy bombings, to snubbing the world summits on racism and sustainable development (both held in South Africa), to showing contempt for UN Secretary General Kofi Annan-contain “that element”: racism. This racism, which also underlies U.S. designs on African oil, the prioritizing of counterterrorism over tackling poverty and AIDS, and the militarizing of the continent, has distorted Washington’s perception of what truly matters to Africa and Africans.

MARTHA HONEY is Executive Director of the enter on Ecotourism and Sustainable Development, a Joint Program of Stanford University and the Institute for Policy Studies. She can be reached at: Martha@ips-dc.org