US President Barack Obama, the first African American to occupy the White House, has used his part-African background to leverage influence in the continent of his ancestors. Let us first get something out of the way – no, Obama is not a secret Muslim; no, he is not ignoring the rest of the world to focus exclusively on Africa; no, his ethnic heritage is not anything to be ashamed of; no, his place of birth is not in dispute – let us dispense with these Trumpist, ultra-right Republican talking points for what they are – rubbish. Obama has used his personal heritage as a political bridge into an important part of the world; Africa.
What kind of African intervention has Obama carried out over his two terms in office, and how exactly has he intervened in Africa? The answer to this question is put forward by John Feffer, co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC and author of numerous books and articles about US foreign policy. In an article published in Common Dreams magazine, Feffer outlines that Obama’s initiatives, putting asides the public relations spin about entrepreneurial outreach, is an extension of the previous colonial, imperialistic policies: “Strip away all the modern PR and prettified palaver and it’s an ugly scramble for oil, minerals, and markets for U.S. goods.” As Feffer states in his article:
Unfortunately US policy towards Africa have largely translated into holding the door open for U.S. multinationals to do what outsiders have done for centuries: extract the continent’s wealth.
Ethiopia has always been important
A series of outstanding articles and interviews in Tuck magazine have correctly highlighted the international importance and growing regional influence of the African country of Ethiopia. In interviews with Ethiopian academics and foreign policy experts, the importance of Ethiopia, a lynchpin in the East African region, has been emphasised and it has an increasing role in the African Union. Major international players, such as the United States, are giving Ethiopia and the East African region more attention and are establishing cooperative relations with that country. However, there is an assumption underlying these articles that has as yet remained unexamined.
Ethiopia, and East Africa generally, has always been strategically important to the great powers. It is not just from the early 1990s onwards that Ethiopia acquired the attention of the imperialist states. When Ethiopia was governed by the Communist regime (1974-1991), it was always regarded as a strategically important ally, for the former Eastern bloc countries. It maintained extensive trading, cultural and political relations with the other socialist countries, such as Cuba. The latter provided technical assistance, agricultural products, trade based on a system of mutual benefit and not profit-making with fluctuating stock market prices, and educators to school young Ethiopians in the socialist world-outlook.
The United States, Britain and other imperialist powers viewed Ethiopia as a battleground – indeed, Africa was in the midst of a Cold War fought between the allies of the rival superpowers.Ethiopia was no exception to this, and the United States sponsored various ethnic-based militias in secessionist wars to topple the socialist regime in Addis Ababa. The United States at this time was interested in opening up Ethiopia to its economic imperatives, and using the disguise of humanitarian intervention, funneled arms and support for the ethnic-separatist groups, gathered together in the Maoist-oriented Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). This formation, having acquired power in 1991 after the disbanding of the Eastern bloc and removal of the socialist regime in Addis Ababa, has hung onto power ever since through dictatorial measures.
The EPRDF quickly abandoned any pretence of commitment to Maoist-style socialism and became an enthusiastic ally of the capitalist West. It has implemented IMF economic programmes, where corruption and mismanagement have become endemic. Human rights violations, including the suppression and torture of dissidents, is normalised. Agricultural products account for the largest portion of exports from Ethiopia, even though there are chronic food shortages in the country. The threat of famine is never far, and indeed famine has struck Ethiopia with depressingly regularity given the levels of poverty and food insecurity. As Graham Peebles explained in one of his regular articles for Counterpunch magazine about Ethiopia:
More than half the population live on less than $1 a day; over 80% of the population live in rural areas (where birth-rates are highest), and work in agriculture, the majority being smallholder farmers who rely on the crops they grow to feed themselves and their families.
The people of Ethiopia have suffered chronic food insecurity for generations: the major reason, as is the case throughout the world, is poverty. Other causes are complex; some due to climate change, others result from the ruling regime’s policies. Action Aid (AA) reports that unequal trading systems are a factor. The Ethiopian government purchases crops from farmers at low, fixed prices. International organisations encourage Ethiopia to produce cash crops to export, which reduces the land available for growing domestic crops – yes, Ethiopia – where millions rely on food aid every year – exports food. The country’s top exports are Gold (21%) Coffee (19%), vegetables and oily seeds, followed closely by live animals and khat – a highly addictive narcotic.
The Ethiopians experienced drought and famine during the socialist regime in the 1980s. The widespread famine of the mid-1980s brought the political situation to the attention of the international community. This reaction of the imperialist powers was to exploit the suffering of the Ethiopians for Cold War political purposes – food became a political football, with the BBC and various corporate media outlets broadcasting heart-rending images of the famine’s victims and concerts were organised to raise money for food aid. There were no humanitarian motivations on the part of the governments of the imperialist states; they promoted the Euro-centric view that black Africans – and in particular, socialist black Africans – cannot feed and govern themselves. Any suggestions that there were natural causes contributing to the famine were dismissed out of hand, and the blame was placed squarely on the shoulders of the regime.
Here we are in 2016, and Ethiopia is facing famine and food insecurity – as of late last year, the number of people requiring food aid doubled to 8.2 million. Schools, hospitals and facilities have been forced to close down due to water and food shortages. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) released startling figures that place the number of food-insecure people in Ethiopia at just over ten million. The OCHA report makes clear that there are definitive natural causes for this drought and resultant famine – the OCHA states that:
More than 80 per cent of the population live in rural areas and rely on rain-fed agriculture for their livelihood. Their vulnerability is frequently exacerbated by natural and man-made hazards, including drought, flooding, disease outbreaks, intercommunal conflict and refugee influxes from neighbouring states. Drought and flooding increase the risk of water-related disease outbreaks, particularly Acute Watery Diarrhoea, malaria and measles and especially among children under age 5. Access to clean water and basic health care, including life-saving maternal and neonatal services, remains low.
How has the Ethiopian government responded? Firstly by denying the severity of the crisis, and secondly by downplaying its deleterious effects. The regime has imprisoned its opponents, suppressed journalists and has carried out repressive measures against Muslim and ethnic minorities, namely in the Ogaden region in the south-east of the country. These are crimes of which the former socialist regime was accused and condemned. As Graham Peebles explained his article called “Ogaden: Ethiopia’s hidden shame”:
The ruling party, the EPRDF, uses violence and fear to suppress the people and governs in a highly centralised manner. Human rights are ignored and a methodology of murder, false imprisonment, torture and rape is followed.
The ethnic Somali population of the Ogaden, in the southeast part of the country, has been the victim of extreme government brutality since 1992. It’s a familiar story of a region with a strong identity seeking autonomy from central government, and the regime denying them that democratic right.
However, the Addis Ababa regime has avoided outright international condemnation – because it is a valued proxy of the United States. In July 2015, US President Obama visited East African countries, including Ethiopia. He celebrated Ethiopia’s role as a solid ally in the ‘war on terror’, praised the regime of Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, and expressed his appreciation of the Ethiopian military’s role in American-supported wars in Somalia, the latter having been the target of various ground-invasions by Ethiopian and Kenyan troops in a bid to stop Islamist militias in that war-torn country. Obama let slip on the real nature of Ethiopia’s post-1991 friendship with the United States:
Obama, who has delivered vague homilies about the importance of “democracy” and “human rights” in Africa, avoided, as he did in his previous stop in Kenya, any direct criticism of the Ethiopian regime. Instead, he bluntly spelled out what Washington values in the regime in Addis Ababa: “We don’t need to send our own Marines in to do the fighting. The Ethiopians are tough fighters.”
This is not to romanticise the period of socialist government in Ethiopia. There was political and economic mismanagement, the suppression of the ruling stratum from the former feudal-monarchical regime, the demand for political loyalty to the new regime and its allies in the Eastern bloc. The point is that we are quick to present the United States as an ethical friend of Africa, uniquely committed to human rights and democracy, unlike all the other major powers. Ethiopia, along with its neighbours Kenya and Uganda, is a military and economic outpost of the United States in the East Africa region, and provides its US-sponsored military force as a willing recruit for American foreign policy objectives in the region. Its lack of internal democracy does not provoke the slightest whisper of protest or rebuke from Washington.
The Soviet Union, in its day, intervened in the affairs of Africa. The political leadership of Moscow paid great attention to the politics and emergent nation-states of Africa in the wake of decolonisation after World War Two. How did they intervene? An article in The New Statesman provides an answer. Anoosh Chakelian, deputy web editor at the magazine, wrote an article called “What the untold Soviet history of “Red Africa” reveals about the racism of modern Russia”. She writes that there was a time, during the Soviet period, when anti-racist solidarity was a distinct component of Russia’s support for anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles in Africa. Racist violence in Russia today is endemic, and it is a terrible problem for Russia’s current authorities. However, as Chakelian explains:
But there was once a time when Russia was ahead of the rest of the world in welcoming migrants, and its attitude towards Africans and African Americans. Overshadowed by the Western preoccupation with the Cold War in Europe, the USSR’s relationship with Africa is a forgotten piece of Soviet history.
“In the Twenties and Thirties, not only was Russia not racist in relation to black people, but it was encouraging migration,” says Mark Nash, curator of Things Fall Apart, an exhibition held by the contemporary Russian culture foundation Calvert 22 in London.
“Four or five thousand black people came in the Twenties and Thirties to the Soviet Union per year,” he adds. “A number of them stayed because they were equal citizens and they had equal rights, which they didn’t have in the States until the Sixties. The official ideology was really anti-racist.”
African Americans, facing lynchings, discrimination and racist mob violence at home in the US, decided to make the Soviet Union their home, with its promises of racial equality. These emigrants found acceptance and a new life in the USSR, in stark contrast to their American homelands where discrimination and strict segregation still ruled the day until the major civil rights upheavals of the 1960s. While these African American emigrants have now become footnotes in history, their example serves as a useful reminder that in the not-too-distant past, anti-racism was an official ideology in a political sphere long demonised as a totalitarian nightmare. The Washington Post asked “What would compel a black American to move to Stalinist Russia?” Many reasons are provided, but one explanation is more compelling than the others; because class mattered, but not race.
What has this got to do with Africa? The Soviet Union, throughout the 1960s and 1970s, provided material and ideological support for those African parties and groups fighting imperialism and colonialism in their home countries. The Soviets made great capital out of the systemic problems of racism and economic exploitation in the United States, and supported those African political parties that adhered to its Bolshevik ideology. Was this political propaganda? In a way, yes. There is no such thing as a racial utopia, and the Soviets were out to export their political beliefs and philosophy to African countries.
However, we would do well to remember that in the days when the African National Congress (ANC) and Nelson Mandela were regarded as terrorists by Britain and United States, the Soviet Union heavily promoted the ANC, staunchly opposed the racist apartheid regime in South Africa, and thousands of ANC activists were trained politically and militarily in the Soviet bloc. Mandela himself, after his release from prison in 1994, paid tribute to the role of the USSR in assisting the anti-apartheid struggle. As Russia Beyond the Headlines explained:
It is easy for critics of Mandela to label him a communist and downplay Russia’s intentions in ending state-sponsored racism in South Africa. Mandela refuted these claims in his autobiography, The Long Walk to Freedom. He wrote, with a tinge of humor, “There will always be those who say that the Communists were using us. But who is to say that we were not using them?”
The USSR had its own problems with ethnic minorities, particularly in the lead-up to and during World War Two – with the Volga Germans, the Chechens and Crimean Tatars. None of this is in dispute. Even today, we can see the political use of the Crimean Tatar issue by the United States to rally more public opinion in its current round of anti-Russian measures, downplaying the extent of political collaboration between the Crimean Tatars and hostile outside powers. The point is that racism in Russia today is a very serious malignancy, and any solution to this problem must examine the example of anti-racist solidarity and practicing international outreach provided by Russia’s recent history.
The American empire of military bases
The heading above comes from an article by Nick Turse, investigative journalist and writer for TomDispatch. Turse has written a compelling and rigorously researched series of articles demonstrating just how the United States, under a guise of secrecy, has constructed an enormous and extensive network of military bases, outposts and spying facilities that has turned the continent into a laboratory for American warfare. In an article called “America’s empire of African bases spreads”, Turse has documented his ongoing battle with the US military to uncover exactly just how many, and how geographically extensive, the archipelago of US military bases is in Africa. Turse elaborates that:
So how many U.S. military bases are there in Africa? It’s a simple question with a simple answer. For years, U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) gave a stock response: one. Camp Lemonnier in the tiny, sun-bleached nation of Djibouti was America’s only acknowledged “base” on the continent. It wasn’t true, of course, because there were camps, compounds, installations, and facilities elsewhere, but the military leaned hard on semantics.
The US military prefers to use a new euphemism – cooperative security locations (CSLs) to describe its military outposts in Africa. When taking into account all the other military facilities, spying locations, drone bases and considerable military settlements the US has, the number is astounding. Turse describes it as an AFRICOM base bonanza:
Indeed, U.S. staging areas, cooperative security locations, forward operating locations (FOLs), and other outposts — many of them involved in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance activities and Special Operations missions — have been built (or built up) in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Chad, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Gabon, Ghana, Kenya, Mali, Niger, Senegal, the Seychelles, Somalia, South Sudan, and Uganda.
When the Romans built military bases, fortifications and militarised frontiers, at least they had the honesty to call it an empire.
The American military footprint, initiated by George W Bush, has escalated under Obama. The first African American president has overseen a massive increase in the US military presence in Africa, and all this activity is nothing new. Back in 2012, Lee Wengraf wrote an article for the US Socialist Worker newspaper entitled “Obama’s war in Africa”. The author writes that;
IT IS no exaggeration to say that the U.S. is at war in Africa. The continent is awash with American military bases, covert operations and thousands of Western-funded troops, and responsibility for this escalation must be laid squarely on Obama’s doorstep.
Key to the Obama administration global strategy in the post-Iraq era is a shift from “boots on the ground” towards “alliance-building.” The idea is to cement American “indispensability” to African political stability in geo-strategically critical areas–from the Horn of Africa, with its proximity to the Suez Canal and Middle East, to West African nations, with billions of barrels of oil.
Rather than the direct deployment of massive numbers of American troops, Obama has shifted to a more cautious, tactical, but no less insidious policy of proxy-building; acquire reliable allies on the ground, such as Ethiopia, and they can perform the bulk of the hand-to-hand fighting. Meanwhile, US special forces, military experts and foreign policy planners provide the backup where needed. Let us not forget that usual driver of imperialist ambition; rivalry and competition. Wengraf explains that:
Today, global competition drives Obama’s foreign policy. During the past decade, the U.S. has engaged in a fierce battle with China for worldwide economic and military preeminence. The aim has been to encircle and contain China’s growing reach. The Economist reported a Department of Defense announcement that by 2020, 60 percent of American warships would be stationed in Asia, along with “a range of other ‘investments’ to ensure that despite China’s fast-growing military might, America would still be able to ‘rapidly project military power if needed to meet our security commitments.'”
Intensified competition with China, and other powers such as Russia, is fueling the higher levels of U.S. military involvement in Africa and a new scramble for resources. This scramble is mainly about oil, in which Africa plays a critical supply role for both China and the U.S., but also about increased overall investment in resources–from diamonds and gold to land for agricultural investment.
Beijing is of course looking out for its own interests; neither the Chinese regime, nor for that matter the former Soviet Union, was motivated by benevolent altruism. China has dealings with repressive states in Africa, such as the Sudan; the latter receives military equipment and arms in return for oil. Beijing has successfully acquired the oil markets of the new nation of South Sudan, importing 77 percent of the latter’s country’s oil.
This is galling for the US, because the birth of South Sudan was nurtured by the Americans, who provided arms for its secessionist ambitions. The Chinese are building infrastructure in sub-Saharan Africa, providing billions in every sector of the economy, from roads to telecommunications to health. The Chinese government is better at presenting itself as an equal trading and business partner for Africa, with the volume of trade reaching 222 billion dollars last year.
The United States is viewing the soft power approach of the Chinese in Africa with anxiety. It has responded with a mixture of escalating militarisation of the continent, and corporatisation of its business interests. The United States, while portraying its intervention in Africa as an anti-terrorist exercise, is actually the main purveyor of political destabilisation and violence. It is time to examine the US war on Africa, this undeclared offensive that the US military wants to keep hidden from public view. The election of an African American president was used to draw a false finish line underneath the problem of racism in American society. An African American president in the White House did not change the system, because it is not the presidential office that needs changing, but the imperialist system itself.