On April 25th, AFRICOM, the US central command in Africa, joined USAID in celebrating World Malaria Day by spreading awareness of the US’s counter-malaria efforts in Africa. But don’t let the humanitarian façade fool you; this was a PR campaign for AFRICOM’s military presence in West Africa.
Using their Facebook page and the hashtag #malariabuzz, AFRICOM attempted to reach the world’s audience to promote their programs in West Africa which partner with countries to share “best practices.” These programs, according to AFRICOM, serve to “enhance civilian-to-military cooperation,” a turn of phrase that hauntingly echoes of the US’ misguided promise to win the hearts of mind of Iraqis during the 2003 invasion.
Unfortunately, humanitarian-military partnerships are not unique to AFRICOM, nor is this the first time the US military has used health workers in tactical operations: health practitioners in Pakistan were unknowingly lured into aiding in the capture of Osama Bin Laden, which has resulted in job-losses, death-threats, and the mistrust and assassinations of health workers around the country.
AFRICOM’s choice of West Africa to roll out their malaria initiative is no surprise. Geographically, West Africa is a strategic foothold given its natural resources (Nigerian and Ghanaian oil, Nigerien uranium) and proximity to the Sahel and North Africa, two areas about which the US has voiced serious concerns. What’s more, just last week Secretary of State John Kerry said the US was worried about Iran and China’s strong, growing “influence” in the area.
Though the US military has been operating for some time in the region, AFRICOM made its presence more publically known in February 2013 when, taking advantage of the chaotic situation in Mali, the US asked Niger for permission to build a drone base in-country. Nigerien President Mahamadou Issoufou quickly agreed. Just a few weeks later construction and initial surveillance flights had begun. Niger is just one base in a multi-site network AFRICOM is establishing across the continent.
The conflict in Mali has raised questions of the capacity of regional bodies such as Economic Community of West African States and the African Union to handle security issues. Michael Sheenan, a senior Pentagon official called ECOWAS “completely incapable” of managing troops in Mali. This scathing comment came just days before the Chadian military, one of the largest forces in Mali, announced it was withdrawing troops after losing 30 soldiers in what the Chadian president called “shadowy, guerrilla-style war.”
Sustained regional insecurities and questions of local military competence leave room for the US to quietly continue strengthening its foothold in West Africa. Despite the US military’s unpopularity throughout the continent (not a single nation offered to host AFRICOM headquarters, which are currently based in Germany), AFRICOM has pledged to carry on its work, holding joint-military trainings, assisting in military operations, and on the side—so it claims—fighting malaria.
But AFRICOM does not belong in West Africa. Its permanent presence is an insult, and a continued neo-colonial assault on sovereign countries whose lands and resources are being destroyed and sold to foreign companies while their economies and people are being underdeveloped for the benefit of the West.
AFRICOM’s Malaria Day motives are clear. The partnership between AFRICOM and USAID is a sham: the US ought not hide militarism under the guise of humanitarianism.