In an April 2016 statement the Peace and Security Council (PSC) expressed concern about foreign military bases on the continent and the establishment of new ones. The council called on member states to be ‘circumspect’ when ‘entering into agreements that would lead to the establishment of foreign military bases in their countries’. Despite its expression of concern, however, the continent is host to a rising number of foreign military operations and bases, largely as a result of bilateral agreements between some African Union (AU) member states and foreign powers.
The issue of foreign military presence is again on the PSC agenda in August 2019.
Currently, of the 13 countries with a known presence in Africa, the United States (US) and France have the most troops on the continent. According to the French Ministry of Defence, France has an estimated 7 550 military personnel spread across the continent in various military operations and missions (excluding UN operations), while the US has a higher number spread across 34 known outposts across the Northern, Western and Horn regions of Africa.
The Horn of Africa has become the epicentre of this presence, with about 11 foreign military bases. This is largely as a result of the region’s strategic proximity to the Middle East and Asia and the subsequent emergence of a regional security complex along the Red Sea.
From their sprawling outposts across the continent, foreign militaries focus primarily on protecting their interests, securing friendly regimes, projecting their influence amid rising competition among global powers, and countering threats to international peace and security, particularly those posed by the activities of terrorist groups and pirates, especially in the Gulf of Aden.
Local drivers of foreign military presence
There has been a substantial increase in the size and extent of foreign military presence in Africa after 9/11, largely because of the self-seeking actions of foreign powers and their eagerness to project influence on the continent. However, their presence is clearly indicative of important gaps in Africa’s responses to prevailing peace and security challenges, especially threats originating from terrorist groups and maritime piracy.
These gaps are caused by Africa’s inability to swiftly operationalise the African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA), particularly its African Standby Force (ASF) component, which would help contain some of these crises. A well-functioning APSA would have enabled the continent to properly respond to its security challenges while assuring the international community that Africa is capable of addressing its own challenges, as well as threats to international peace and security.
Foreign military presence in Africa is also driven by AU member states that are willing, despite the AU’s concerns about the situation, to lease their territories to foreign powers.
Apart from the right of sovereign AU member states to determine the proper use of their territories, leasing of territories for military bases is driven principally by domestic economic gains and sometimes the tendency of some member states to seek external help in dealing with serious security challenges. Djibouti, for instance, generates more than US$300 million annually from the foreign military presence on its soil.
Other AU member states, such as former French colonies, have been hosting French military bases as a result of bilateral military agreements signed after independence. Ensuring regime security for the incumbent government and securing French economic interests in the host country and the region are the principal motives for such arrangements.
The dangers of foreign military presence in Africa
Arguably, the successes of US drone attacks in Somalia have contributed significantly to reducing al-Shabaab’s spoiler capacity in efforts towards peace. Similarly, the contribution of French troops in building the capacity of national armies in the Sahel and driving out jihadists from northern Mali has been significant, although terrorism does not seem to be receding in the region. Yet despite such direct contributions there is also a downside to this foreign military presence.
First, the competition among the various foreign militaries to influence responses to challenges in Africa’s hotspots has led to a multiplicity of activities that overcrowd the security landscape, especially in the Sahel and the Horn of Africa. This has had direct implications for the emergence of ad hoc regional response structures such as the Joint Force of the Group of Five of the Sahel (G5 Sahel) and the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF).
Such regional responses emerge out of the willingness of some African states to address certain security challenges outside the framework of the regional economic communities, with the support of a foreign military presence. The G5 Sahel, for instance, is considered by many as France’s exit strategy from the Sahel. The existence of ad hoc responses such as the G5 Sahel, in which French authorities and military presence have played a key role, has lessened the urgency to operationalise regional security structures.
The increasing presence of Asian powers in Djibouti points to another major risk. Following China’s expanding presence in the country, there are growing fears in Japanese and Indian circles regarding its implications for Chinese influence in the Indian Ocean. The result is a consequent expansion of Japanese influence in Djibouti.
This has not just exported the tensions in the East China Sea to Africa but has also made Africa practically complicit in the actions of its guests elsewhere. The latter is evident from the role of Djibouti as a base for US drone operations in Somalia and Yemen, as well as the United Arab Emirates’ use of the Assab base in Eritrea for operations in Yemen.
Also important is the potential destabilising impact that growing rivalry among major global powers may have on the continent. Rivalry between the US and China is playing out in Djibouti, where the two countries are competing to outpace each other and have accused each other of spying.
While the Chinese have accused the US of taking unauthorised photos of its facility, the US has accused China of shining lasers into the eyes of American pilots. Such developments raise serious concerns as to the long-term outcomes of continued tension between global powers (China and the US) and between regional powers, such as Japan and China.
Apart from turning Africa into a proxy turf for extra-regional competition, the risks of such tensions’ escalating are also high. In the event of such an escalation the host member state and the African continent, in general, are set to house the showdown and will be on the receiving end of the ensuing destruction.
No continental consensus
Particularly crucial is the fact that, despite the risks associated with foreign military presence and the AU’s call for member states to be circumspect in their dealings, there is still no established continental consensus on the modalities for regulating bilateral initiatives that result in the establishment of bases.
This raises questions as to what constitutes ‘circumspection’, given that member states reserve the right to pursue their national interests as sovereign entities. This has allowed bilateral relations that can be shrouded in secrecy but still have significant implications for collective security on the continent.
PSC’s call for circumspection
The AU’s request for circumspection on the part of member states is necessary to inform urgent continental action. The need for urgency stems from the self-justifying nature of foreign military presence. The US, for instance, has numerous military outposts, often referred to as lily pads, on the continent from where it conducts drone operations, training, military exercises, direct action and humanitarian activities.
The associated infrastructure, support systems and military personnel for these operations have, in and of themselves, amounted to significant American interest in Africa. The US military justifies its presence on the continent as necessary for the protection of those interests.
Owing to the sensitive nature of the situation, discussions about the future of foreign military presence therefore require the utmost objectivity – not just for African member states but also for all actors currently scrambling for a presence across the continent.