Liberia: Going against the Grain; Why Does Liberia Want to Host the US Military Command for Africa (Africom) against the Better Judgement of Other African Countries? Lansana Gberie, Just Back from Monrovia, Reports on the Thinking of the Liberian Leadership and Other Unresolved Matters Facing the Country

Article excerpt

On 25 June 2007, the online journal allafrica.com published an extraordinary "guest column" written by Liberia's president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. The article focused on the creation of the US military command for Africa (Africom), and dismissed widespread scepticism among progressive African leaders about its intent.

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"Africom should be seen for what it is," the Liberian president wrote, "recognition of the growing importance of Africa to US national security interests, as well as recognition that long-term African security lies in empowering African partners to develop a healthy security environment through embracing good governance, building security capacity, and developing good civil military relations."

Johnson-Sirleaf did not elaborate on what constitutes US national security interests in Africa, but her article went on at length about the supposed merit of Africom, and made a pitch for the force's headquarters to be based in Liberia.

"Liberians can only hope," she wrote, "that the United States will use Africom to raise standards for engagement and help change 'the way of doing business' in Africa. Africom is undeniably about the projection of American interests--but this does not mean that it is to the exclusion of African ones."

Since its creation in the 19th century--as a settlement for freed American slaves, becoming, in 1847, Africa's first republic--Liberia has tended to take a very benign view of American interests, often at its costs.

In the 1980s, during the rule of President Samuel Doe, Americans built a huge relay station for the Voice of America (VOA) radio, as well as a listening post for the CIA, near Monrovia, facilities now degraded but which President Johnson-Sirleaf is offering the Americans as a site for the building of the headquarters of Africom.

But the Americans have been rather coy about these starry-eyed offers, and some Liberians watch in pained bemusement as their country, once again, deludes itself about its "special ties" with the Americans.

Nigeria has recently rejected Africom, as have many other African countries, including Libya (which has openly criticised the Liberians for wooing Africom) and South Africa.

Both Nigeria and South Africa are instead championing an African Standby Force, a proposition that has been endorsed by the African Union (AU) and Ecowas.

Africom may well be in Liberia's, as well as America's, vital national interest, but the Americans have never been deluded about what constitutes their national interests.

The US National Energy Policy report of May 2001, also called the Cheney Report, made clear that Africa was increasingly becoming strategic because sub-Saharan African oil, which now supplies about 20% of American demand, has become a vital national interest of the US.

"West Africa," the report noted, "is expected to be one of the fastest-growing sources for oil and gas for the American market," especially as the Middle East becomes more volatile and crisis-ridden. Other American interests have since been made clear.

A few years ago, the US quietly opened a military base in Djibouti. The aim: to monitor, kill or capture Al Qaeda fighters. This base was instrumental in last year's Ethiopian intervention in Somalia. Senior American sources say that by 2012, the US military will have two dozen such forts or bases in Africa.

Africom will be the unit coordinating these forts, even though the rhetorical stress now is that it will be using mainly "soft power"--humanitarian assistance and development aid--as if a permanent military command structure is needed for that. There is also the growing influence of China in Africa, which the Americans warily watch. That, too, has to be countered.

So what is Liberia's interest in all of this? A government spokesman recently told the BBC that Africom will help with long-term stability, but he did not state how. …