JULY 26, 2023 MAY have become a watershed in foreign military interventions as well as bilateral and multilateral relations in Africa. That a foreign country was told to withdraw its ambassador and armed forces was not new. What was new, however, was the speed and tenacity with which the foreign soldiers and ambassadors were told to leave. Following the military takeover of power in the Republic of Niger, the military leaders announced the imminent exit of the 1,500 French soldiers stationed in Niger. The US soldiers were not spared. The coup raised questions over whether the US can continue the 1100-strong military presence in the country. In the aftermath of the two coups in Mali in 2020 and 2021, the military leaders indicated that all 2,400 French troops in Mali should leave. Out of the total of over 5,000 French soldiers stationed in the Sahel, deployed in Mali, Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso and Mauritania on the mission codenamed Operation Barkhane, the last unit of those deployed to Mali crossed into neighbouring Niger in August 2022, after major fallout with Malian soldiers in power. That ended nine years of the presence of the French troops, ostensibly to maintain regional security. It was obviously a failed mission in terms of benefits to Mali. It could have been the opposite for France as subsequent events might prove.
Meanwhile, the growing presence of military bases in Africa is becoming worrisome. While it gives an outward impression that African countries cannot cope with the challenges of insecurity, armed insurgencies and religious militancy, it appears the military interventions are merely a ploy for some other missions. It would be sheer naivety to think those setting up military bases were so altruistic. Why, for instance, are various superpowers setting up such formations in various countries of Africa? Possible reasons are political, tactical and geostrategic. The continent is therefore becoming a battleground for proxy wars in addition to the decades of extraction of natural resources unabated. Djibouti is a microcosm of Africa in terms of military competition between countries. It is a country with a population of 1.106 million on a land area of 23,200 km2. Yet, Djibouti has foreign military bases ranging between eight and 11, depending on which sources you consult.
Djibouti, despite its small size, is considered far more important than many other bigger countries because of its location at the entrance to Bab el-Mandeb strait on the Red Sea where 30 percent of world trade passes. The interests of the various industrial nations and global powers are inextricably linked with their military presence in this African country where they play a key role in maintaining the security of the country. This is not necessarily primarily in the interest of Djibouti, but for the protection of the interests of the foreign powers, considering the turbulent situation in Yemen and Somalia, the burgeoning and intensified piracy in the western Indian Ocean and the Horn of Africa. To the global community, the benefits to the maritime industry are enormous as they weaken the strongholds of pirates and terrorist groups such as the al-Shabaab group, which has taken advantage of Somalia’s weak governance over the past three decades.
The most important and the oldest base in Djibouti is the French base. Not surprising, anyway, as it was previously a French colony in the Horn of Africa between 1884 and 1967, when it was referred to as the French Territory of the Afars and the Issas. In addition to Somali and Afar as the most widely spoken local tongues, Arabic and French are two official languages in the country. The Republic of Djibouti later became its legal successor state. The spelling of the name took the French style. For its pronunciation, it would probably have been spelt “Jibuti” in English. The French culture of keeping military presence in their former colonies played out in Djibouti in this case. September 11 attacks probably prompted the US to step up its presence in the country, within the “war on terror” framework. China too now maintains a naval base there, while Germany, Spain, Italy, Britain, Japan, and Turkey are active, either through bases of their own or through French and American bases within close proximity to one another.
Foreboding of likely future proxy wars on African soil by these countries thus arises as there are potentials for friction between nations operating there, sometimes involving accusations of espionage. While India has expressed interest in establishing its military base in Djibouti, Russia seems to have settled for Sudan. In February 2023, Sudan’s ruling military concluded a review of an agreement with Russia to build its first naval base at Port Sudan on the Red Sea. The naval base is expected to host up to 300 Russian troops and up to four navy ships – including nuclear-powered ones – a decision that is already facing stiff opposition from the West. France’s largest foreign military base outside of its borders is in Djibouti, with about 1,500 soldiers deployed at the base, said to be performing counter-terrorism missions and guarding nearby sea lanes. But the tide seems to be turning against France and its interests in the rest of Africa as more countries are likely to join Mali and Niger in the resistance to its military presence
What France has got away with for decades is about to end. The desperation with which France wanted to hide behind the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to invade Niger exposed the dissembling of France. France reportedly wanted to restore the deposed President Mohamed Bazoum by launching military action, a plan that went awry and irked the military leaders, informing their hard stance on France. The unexpected happened and France was told to move its military out of Niger in addition to revoking the France ambassador’s immunity. The wave of anti-French sentiment sweeping across the Sahel has affected Burkina Faso and Guinea Conakry as well since the military takeover of government there and will likely threaten the French military presence in no small way. While French military outposts in African countries – particularly the former colonies – became visible recently on account of the Niger coup, those of other Western countries elsewhere are likely to attract more attention in the near future for obvious reasons as they are suspected of ripping up African countries under false pretence of maintaining security.
Sentiments against foreign troops, either on bilateral or multilateral arrangement, are growing. The United Nations Peacekeeping Force is not spared. Just over a week ago, this month, the DR Congo’s President Félix Tshisekedi called for the withdrawal of the UN soldiers. The United Nations Organisation Stabilisation Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo or MONUSCO, an acronym based on its French name Mission de l’Organisation des Nations Unies pour la stabilisation en République démocratique du Congo, was brought to help quell insecurity in the DR Congo’s east where armed groups fight brutally over minerals. It has been reckoned that the United Nations peacekeeping force in the DR Congo has records of sexual abuse and rape of the very people they are supposed to protect. Although illegal exploitation of minerals in eastern DR Congo has been widely blamed for prolonging conflict and insecurity in that region, reports have shown UN staff caught while trafficking minerals from the troubled region. In August 2011, a UN driver was caught while trying to illegally export tin oxide mineral cassiterite into Rwanda.
Of the series of attacks on the UN soldiers, eight people were reportedly killed and 28 wounded in February, earlier this year, when protesters in east DR Congo’s North-Kivu province blocked and attacked a convoy of UN peacekeepers. In August, at least 56 people were killed and dozens wounded in an army crackdown on violent anti-UN demonstrations in the eastern city of Goma. In July 2022, another protest resulted in more than 15 deaths, including three peacekeepers in Goma and the city of Butembo.
At the UN General Assembly in New York last month, President Tshisekedi announced that he has instructed his government to fast-track the withdrawal of the UN peacekeeping mission to ensure it begins at the end of the year. Specifically, he lamented that the mission, called MONUSCO, which took over from an earlier UN operation in 2010 to help quell insecurity in the DRC’s east where armed groups fight over territory and resources, has not achieved the desired purpose as critics have said its failure to protect civilians from violence was igniting resentment and deadly protests. According to him, “it is to be deplored that peacekeeping missions deployed for 25 years … have failed to cope with the rebellions and armed conflicts.” The local people have concluded that the UN forces are useless because of their inability to prevent attacks or to respond to them adequately.
It is highly unlikely that there will be any vacuum as a result of the withdrawal of these foreign forces from Western governments or the UN as more and more African countries are turning their back to the West while looking eastward. Already, the Eastern power bloc is waiting in the wings for the right time to move in. The construction of a Chinese naval base in Equatorial Guinea should send a strong message to the world that the influence of the East in Africa is rising where that of the West is waning. According to Foreign Policy, a think tank, China has likely considered 13 countries for military basing access, of which Angola, Kenya, the Seychelles, and Tanzania in Africa. Within its $1 trillion dollars Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in Africa, China has approximately 10,000 enterprises in its investments portfolio, generating $180 billion a year in revenues and could reach $250 billion by as early as 2025, according to a 2017 McKinsey Report. The population of Chinese people in Africa has grown up to one million since 2000, making China’s military exploits in Africa more realistic as it is quietly going on. The European Council for Foreign Relations (ECFR) posits that permanent Chinese military installation in Equatorial Guinea is the culmination of nearly a decade’s investment in Africa – and will not be the last of such bases on the continent’s Atlantic coast. Perhaps this was what manifested in the arrival of the Chinese naval fleet in Nigeria two months ago in July, amidst speculation that the Gulf of Guinea could offer a base for Beijing. It does not come without a cost. Africa-China relationship built on debt diplomacy might bring indebted countries under perpetual subjugation to China.
Russia’s incursion through military support in some African countries takes the form of interventions in crisis-ridden areas such as the Central African Republic, Chad, Sudan, Mozambique, Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. Wagner, the mercenary group under which Russia operates as a tactic for circumventing rule-based approaches and avoids scrutiny and official accountability, has been under the leadership of Yevgeny Prigozhin who reportedly died some weeks ago in a plane crash near Moscow after a trip to Africa. Notwithstanding the differences openly expressed between Prigozhin and President Vladimir Putin, Wagner is undisputedly working to promote Russia’s influence in Africa. There is a price to pay for such an alliance. Already, Wagner is reportedly involved in mining and mineral smuggling in some countries where it presently operates. And that goes on without accountability. It can only get worse as more and more countries of Africa succumb to the onslaught of insurgents and terrorists, creating the right environment for Wagner to thrive. African countries may find themselves straddling the East and the West in its precarious quest for freedom from external influences. Unless something drastic is done to avoid this, Africa may be in a quandary in its quest for military protection. And the crisis continues.