Re-engaging Africa---The West's New Frontier

By Charles Kwalonue Sunwabe, Jr.


The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

December 31, 2003

At the end of the Cold War in the 1991, influential Western and Eastern nations that once supported autocratic regimes in Africa departed from Africa, shifting their attention to Eastern Europe and deprived Africa of much needed international financial aid and the United Nations' assistance, particularly in peaceful conflict resolution. Africa's share of global foreign direct investment dropped miserably in the 1990s, which prompted the World Bank Group, the International Monetary Fund, and the Economist Newsmagazine to declare Africa as a continent faced with "imminent economic disaster". However, the post-Cold War's political and economic woes in Africa were compounded by the devastating HIV/AIDS virus that spread and threatened the Republics of Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Swaziland, and South Africa.

In Eastern Africa, terrorist attacks on two US Embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in 1998 left scores of Africans dead. Meanwhile, West African states entered the new millennium embroiled in religious, ethnic and political strife that continued to threaten the peace and stability of the mineral abundant region. Arguably, Africa was marginalized internationally in the 1990s and, subsequently, its people suffered tremendous losses that were largely due to Western neglect and the burgeoning civil strife that occasioned the Cold War's end.

However, recent development in international affairs, particularly the political and military volatility that engulfed the Middle East following the collapse of peaceful dialogue between the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government coupled with the surge in international terrorism, and the US led Iraqi liberation effort have compelled influential Western nations that once decamped from Africa to re-engage Africa and its people. Presently, the United States of America and its Western allies are involved in offshore oil exploration on the West Coast of Africa in an attempt to gain access to viable alternative to oil and energy sources from the conflict prone Middle East. In Nairobi, Kenya and the tiny African state of Djibouti, US counter terrorism experts and the US Army have set up anti-terrorism camps to help capture and dislodge potential Al-Quaeda operations in East and Central Africa. In this view, Africa has re-emerged as a "New Frontier" inextricably linked to the security and economic viability of the West and East.

In the wake of the West's policy, security and economic reengagement of the African continent, questions are now being raised about the sincerity of the West, the nature of the pending new relationship and how the interests of the general populace of Africa would be reconciled with those of the West. In some professional African circles, the renewed partnership is being described as a selfish "Western narcissistic policy" that would advance the West's narrowly defined African interest (i.e. thwarting terrorism, dislodging Al-Quaeda's Eastern and Central African camps and gaining access to Africa's vast oil reserves), while failing to take legitimate and genuine African interests into consideration.

At least three groups of Africans have voiced their concerns about the reengagement of Africa by the West: Diaspora Africans, the Afro Skeptics and the Afro Internalist. For the most part, Diaspora Africans (i.e. African Americans, naturalized US-African citizens, Caribbean Africans, etc.) welcome the prioritization of Africa by the West at a time when inter-African relations remain truculent and highly polemical. This group of Africans sees the involvement of the West in Africa at this critical juncture as being significant because it would attempt to impose security and internal order on African conflicts by granting African policymakers the latitude to seriously seek western diplomatic and peacekeeping supports in resolving chronic and debilitating African crises. The group's priority African peacekeeping zones include Central and Western Africa, with special emphasis placed on the Mano River Union crisis.

However, Diaspora Africans have deep reservation about the West's true intention. Two questions are prevalent among the members of this group: Why engage Africa now? And what will be the nature and eventual outcome of this renewed relationship? The Afro Skeptics are more critical and deeply suspicious of the West. As a group, their main concern is the imposition of neo-colonial economic policy on Africa under the pretext of a renewed partnership. They welcome the reengagement of African by the West as a step in the right direction but would love to see more from Western-States, particularly in the area of peacekeeping, reduction of tariffs on African goods and the opening of Western economies to African goods----with minimum restrictions.

The Internalists approach to the West's renewed involvement on the African continent is one of caution. On the average, the Internalists are flattered by the sudden Western policy turnaround. However, they are of the unanimous view that any new relations between Africa and the West should be people-focused and oriented. In this way, the views and concerns of the real Africans (peasants, farmers, school children, and adults, etc.) will be incorporated into the formation of policies that are likely to impact their lives (the African masses). The group's concern emanated from past Western policies that woefully ignored the plights of the African masses and became consumed by the demands of psychopathic rulers, dictatorial regimes, and regimented military rulers, who did not enjoy the support of their own people.

It is not difficult to decipher the concerns of the three mentioned African groups: pre- and post-Cold War Western policy failed to take African humanity into consideration - Africa and its people experienced tremendous humanitarian and resource loses while the world looked on. The West hastily decamped from Africa soon after the demise of the Soviet Union became a political reality. In the process, alarming conflicts with African and international implications were abandoned; thus leaving Africans to fend for themselves in a volatile environment that was replete with violence.

It is estimated by the UN and other humanitarian organizations that during this period (the post-Cold War period), more then 1.5 millions Africans lost their lives in Rwanda, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Uganda, Burundi and Ivory Coast---the West treated these African crises with indifference. In spite of these policy shortcomings and Western neglect, Africans must realize that the US embassy bombing of 1998 and the 911 terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center changed the landscape of foreign policy and served the West an important notice and message: Engage Africa now or risk future attacks and a host of international security problems.

This is so - because contemporary African states have environments that are ripe and conducive enough for terrorist hideouts and activities - terrorism thrives on extreme poverty, joblessness, political instability, and chaos. Already, terrorists have used the African state of Kenya as planning and execution ground for two separate attacks on Western interests: the Eastern Africa US embassy bombings were planned and executed by an Al-Quaeda operative, Mohammed Sadeek who lived, owned and operated a business, and even married an African lady from the Kenyan port city of Mombassa.

Early this year, another attack on US interest was reportedly planned and executed by Al-Quaeda terrorists. In November of last year, Al-Quaeda bombed an Israeli-Kenyan hotel and narrowly missed an Israeli owned passenger jet with a surface to air missile. On June 21, 2003, the newly constructed US Embassy in Kenya was shut down because of an Al-Quaeda terrorists' warning. Combined, (the attacks in Mombassa and the continuing rumors of impending terrorists attacks on US-African interest) have cost the cash stricken Kenyan economy millions of US dollars in lost tourism revenues---Kenyan vacation resorts have been abandoned by Western tourists, resulting in strenuous and dismal financial performances.

Kenya is not the only African country where the fear of imminent terrorist attacks is causing great Western and African concerns. In the tiny eastern African country of Djibouti, endless Western intelligent reports suggest that Al-Quaeda and other Middle Eastern terrorist groups are keen to move in, live and strike at Western, especially US interests in the Middle East. Djibouti is said to be attractive to Al-Quaeda and other terrorists' groups, because of its close proximity to the Middle East. Analyst suggests that terrorists, if not countered, could use Djibouti's relative obscurity and friendly environment to launch major attacks on ships including Western Naval ships plying the Mediterranean Sea. As President Ismail Omar Getteh of Djibouti observes, "There is always a danger that there is a residue of terrorist cells in the interior...and we must be on guard for this" (African Business 2003, p. 47).

US troops have been on guard in Djibouti since January of this year - US troops were deployed in the tiny African country early in January in a bid to disrupt Al-Quaeda forces and to prepare US forces to respond to terrorist threats in a timely fashion. General Tommy Franks, former commander of US forces in the Horn of Africa and the Middle East, sums up the goal of the US forces based in Djibouti in these words: "To rebuild the US military's combat power in the Horn of Africa and to position US forces to strike at Al-Quaeda cells in Yemen, Somalia proper and even East Africa." Col. John Mills, commander of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) saw it this way, "We are getting heavy weapons ashore and conducting live fire exercise...I'm preparing my units to operate in a high intensity conflict scenario" (African Business 2003,p; 47).

High-level military deployment such as the one just described is not entirely new to this tiny African State. France, the former colonial power has had permanent military bases in Djibouti dating back to the 1980s. Military analysts say Djibouti's strategic location and close proximity to the Bal el Mandeb Strait grants Western states, particularly the French military easy access to the essential choke point where the Red Sea meets the Gulf of Aden. Presently, Djibouti hosts 2,700 French Foreign Legionnaires supported by superior French Navy and Air Force unit that are based on a permanent French-Djiboutian Military base.

It is often the case that every human relation has periods of tense moments. In Djibouti, there have been incidents of disagreements between the local population and the US forces, causing some analysts to speculate that things might degenerate if both parties do not proceed with caution and exercise restraints. In one incident for example, Capt. Tjepkema, commander of the USS Nassau is said to have sent warning to a local merchant ship facing mechanical difficulties to get out of the way. Eventually, cobra helicopter gun-ships forced the ship to make a detour. However, the incident did not go down well with the indigenous population.

The natives complained that they have always used traditional sailboats to operate trade alone the coastlines of Djibouti and that the actions of the USS Nassau were tantamount to harassment. Furthermore, they asserted that such action deprives them of much needed trade. In a related incident in the Djiboutian port city of Obok, the local population resorted to violence when US Marines took over the "town's pier and interfered with the weekly supply of Khat, a plant that most inhabitants chew for its amphetamine –like effects". The tense standoff between the locals and US Marines was resolved when Djibouti Military officers appeared on the scene "and forced the flack jacketed Marines off the dock" (African Business 2003, p. 47). The most contentious issue in this anti Al-Quaeda US led mission is the use of live weapons in military exercise. As Milan Vesely puts it, "... Djibouti complaints government has agreed to US forces using the desert countryside surrounding the towns as a live fire area, one of the few countries in the region, if not in the world, to do so" (African Business 2003, p. 47).

On the oil front, the entire West African sub-region, particularly the tiny island country of Sao Tome and Principe has claimed Western attention recently. The country is said to have one of Western Africa's vast offshore oil deposits. Major US oil firms are already rushing to the country to conduct offshore oil exploration. So far, the results have been promising, reviewing what nobody knew about this little country and the entire Gulf of Guinea: The region has lots of offshore oil deposits, large enough to turn the region into an emerging economic giant. The US is keen to back up Western oil companies operating in the Gulf of Guinea with military presence that would offer protection to ships plying the seas in this region. In October of last year, former Assistant US Secretary of State for African Affairs, Walter Kansteiner met President Fradique de Menezes and Prime Minister Maria das Neves to discuss US-led oil operation and the possibility of the US-Naval presence on the two Islands that made up this small country (Portuguese News Agency, October 2002).

It is satisfying to see the West, especially the world's only super power, the United States of America, devoting much needed attention and time to the troubled African Continent. It is equally rewarding to see African groups voicing their opinions and concerns about the West's reengagement of Africa. Most importantly, all sides (the various groups debating the West's reengagement of Africa, Western governments and policymakers) may take into consideration the idea that international politics is all about states' interests - in the history of international politics; states have traditionally pursued their interests irrespective of criticisms emanating from human rights groups and freedom campaigners.

In the renewed Afro-Western relations, all sides have interests that are essential and cross cutting: Combating terrorism, the promotion of democratization and good governance, free trade and open economies, etc. Make no mistakes that the terrorists are bad not only for the West, but for Africa as well - they will kill innocent people, decimate societies and hold people against their will. African states need to do all they can to help defeat terrorists, disrupt and dislodge terrorists' hideouts, be it in Africa or elsewhere in the world.

But as Africa and the West fight the common evil (terrorism), Africa's immediate and pressing needs should be addressed. For example, Africa's huge debt burden is a good starting point. The vigorously promoted IMF, World Bank, Paris Club, etc. Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative (HIPCI) has been disappointing - only few African countries can boost of beneficial or measurable debt relief. The majority of African states are still held captive by foreign debts, rampant and systemic corruption. Here is how the West can begin to make the reengagement of African mutually beneficial: funds stolen out of Africa by current and previous dictators need to be returned to Africa and its indigent population. The West has a moral responsibility to humanity in Africa (at least in this respect) --- the poor African masses cannot be expected to pay back loans that did not benefit them in anyway.

We all know that significant portions of all loans made to African states prior to and during the abominable Cold War era were diverted to Western banks by some evil African government's elites---the regimented military buffoons and their surrogates took the funds for themselves. For example, in 1997, the French Weekly Newspaper published these stolen assets of African rulers: General Sani Abaca of Nigeria, 120 billion FF (or $20 billion); former Ivorian President H. Boigny, 35 billion FF (or $ 6 billion); General Ibrahim Babangida of Nigeria, 30 billion FF (or $ 5 billion); the late President Mobutu of Zaire, 22 billion FF (or $ 4 billion); President Mousa Traore of Mali, 10.8 billion FF (or $ 2 billion).

Other names mentioned by the French Weekly were President Henri Bedie of Ivory Coast, 2 billion FF (or 300 million); President Denis N'guesso of Congo, 1.2 billion FF (or $200 million); President Omar Bongo of Gabon, 0.5 billion FF (or $80 million); President Paul Biya of Cameroon, 450 million FF (or $70 million); President Haile Mariam of Ethiopia, 200 million FF (or $30 million); and President Hissene Habre of Chad, 20 million FF (or $3 million). Bear in mind that this list does not reflect the actual amount of money stolen out of Africa by these dictators. Factually, the mentioned figures had changed significantly since the French Weekly article was published in 1997. There are now new African billionaires and millionaire.

While returning funds stolen out of Africa is the right thing to do, efforts must be made by the West and responsible African governments (i.e. the government of Botswana, etc.) to alter international banking laws that will make it difficult for Africa's government officials and corrupt business personalities to transfer huge funds into Western banks. The measure was first proposed following the September 11, 2001 attacks but was rebuffed by Western financial institutions. Again, we need to revisit this issue: the terrorists could use the thieves in Africa's government Ministries to transfer money into Western bank accounts - the money could be used at a later time for terrorists' activities.

Remember that fugitive Liberian President Charles Taylor had close ties with the terrorist organization, Al-Quaeda. Some Western journalists speculate that both Taylor and Al-Quaeda benefited immensely, and used the money obtained from their illegal trade in diamonds to further their inhumane, primitive, and cruel campaigns against humanity. Let me add that the morally bankrupt and desperate crooks in Africa's government ministries would do anything for money. I do not need to remind anyone about how these thugs have murdered their own people and looted their own economies to perpetual poverty.

There are other ways that the West can be of help to Africa. In this regard, I like to offer the following policy suggestions to Western policymakers:

The Western countries should expel from their capitals individuals from Africa who are known to have committed crimes against humanity (in Africa). This means that African warlords should be deported back to Africa. These killers should not reside in western capitals.

The families of known African warlords and human rights violators should be sent back as well - irrespective of the huge cash they might have brought to a particular western capital.

The West must become involved in African peacekeeping activities - the West needs to put boots on the ground in Africa. For the US, Liberia is the right place to start. The US should contribute troops to the pending UN peacekeeping force for Liberia.

The West must match the free trade rhetoric with actions - western economies should be opened to African goods.

About the Author: Charles Kwalonue Sunwabe is a Co-founder and President of The Freedom and International Justice Foundation (, a Washington DC based non-profit organization, which advocates social justice, economic reforms and democracy on the African Continent.