Earlier this week, The Independent published an interview with Ugandan academic Mahmood Mamdani, “Somalia, Museveni, and Militarising the Region.” The interview was a good read and confirmed many of my suspicions of Uganda’s (read: President Museveni’s) perception of the country’s role in regional security. However, I was slightly annoyed at his allusions to the U.S. military’s role in the matter because I think he made it seem like Uganda’s militaristic proclivities were as a result of the U.S. military engagement in the region. I think it’s an oversimplification for him to allude to the United States causing Uganda to be more militaristic. It is, however, fair to say that increased U.S. military engagement in the region has probably facilitated a trend that was organic to the Museveni regime.
Regardless, the article reminded me of a conversation I had with a handful of academics several years ago about African perceptions of U.S. military engagement in Africa. I was in an East African country for a conference, and after the first day, a bunch of us went out to dinner. As the token American on the trip who also happened to work on African security issues, I was soon confronted with complaints about increased U.S. military activity in the region since 9/11, and most particularly, criticisms of U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM). My first instinct was to be defensive. After all, I did (and still do) believe that a military command whose priority was Africa (like U.S. Central Command’s priority is the Middle East and U.S. Pacific Command’s priority is the Asia-Pacific region) was, in principle, a good thing. This was also around the time that AFRICOM was doing a lot of damage control because the public relations part of rolling out a new combatant command hadn’t gone over well in many parts of Africa. However, I quickly realized that as an objective analyst, it wasn’t my job to defend what the U.S. military was doing, but rather to shut my trap and listen.
The more salient points of the ensuing conversation were as follows:
- U.S. policies in Africa are contradictory, and mixed messages delegitimize U.S. engagement. For example, we preach good governance while simultaneously supporting corrupt regimes.
- Military-to-military engagement, as envisioned by AFRICOM, was not ideal because it strengthened regimes that were democratic on paper, but not in reality, such as Uganda and Ethiopia. Furthermore, they were concerned that U.S. military training could be used to suppress popular discontent and keep authoritarian leaders in power.
- Many blamed the U.S. military for the fallout of its counterterrorism-focused operations in the region since 9/11. They were particularly concerned that kinetic counterterrorism operations were destabilizing to the region, and created terrorist problems in areas where they did not exist before
While I learned quite a bit from this conversation, I realized that I needed to take the academics’ points with a grain of salt for two reasons. First, these academics were all from the Horn of Africa, where U.S. strategy has been executed through an almost exclusively counterterrorism lens. This may explain their hostile views on U.S. military involvement in Africa. Second, my dinner companions all came from academia or think tanks, so their perspectives were a subset of civil society perspectives in the Horn of Africa.
This experience, which was reawakened by the Mamdani interview, made me wonder what other perceptions of increased U.S. military engagement in Africa are out there. Do perceptions differ by region or by position in society? It would be nice to be able to systematically gather those perspectives from ministers in African governments, members of parliament, and members of civil society, including NGOs, advocacy groups, academia, and the media. If I ever got the opportunity to collect that data, I think I would get closer the answering that question. Because I think it’s an important question to answer if the United States plans to continue security cooperation with African countries.