Should Africa lobby for Africom headquarters?

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The end of July announcement that Africom (US Africa Command) would be exiting its headquarters in Germany should have generated more than a modicum of interest across the continent at both defence and diplomatic level.

While the announcement by US Defence Secretary Mark Esper as part of a US European Command Review, sees the move putting Africom HQ either elsewhere in Europe or in the US, there is no reason why South Africa; Africa via the AU or any of the regional blocs such as SADC (Southern African Development Community) or ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) should not lobby for the US military command to site its headquarters on the continent it works in.

“US Africa Command has been told to plan to move. While it will likely take several months to develop options, consider locations and come to a decision, the command has started the process. We will ensure we continue to support our host nation, African partners and our families and forces throughout,” US Army General Stephen Townsend, Commander, US Africa Command, said in a statement following Esper’s announcement.

Respected defence analyst Helmoed Heitman is of the opinion having Africom headquarters in South Africa would be good bringing income, access to capabilities needed for regional missions and “having some level of influence on their thinking”.

He, however, is a realist and does not see a move to any African country in the offing.

“I suspect for financial reasons and to avoid offending countries not selected, the US will locate Africom in the continental US, much the same as Centcom,” he said adding the South African government’s” ingrained, knee jerk anti-American, indeed anti-western, emotional hang-up” would preclude any lobbying for Africom HQ in South Africa or any other African country.

“Remember the (South African) government saying no African country was co-operating with Africom when in fact there were only three not doing so – South Africa, Libya no longer a functioning country and Equatorial Guinea because Washington found them too nasty to want to deal with.”

As an option Heitman sees Sao Tome being a good site for the new headquarters.

“It’s a small country with a homogenous population, politically neutral,  central to all Africa and little risk of offending some neighbour that feels slighted by not being the host. It is also less vulnerable to terrorism as it is not as easy to access as other continental countries.”

Now retired senior South African military officers, one who served as an attaché in South America and another who held a senior position in a continental peacekeeping force, told defenceWeb on condition of anonymity “Africom HQ in Africa would be good”.

“Whether it’s Pretoria, Addis Ababa or another continental capital it would make the US presence stronger and at the same time show commitment to Africa by actually being here,” the retired attaché said.

“If there is to be lobbying by South Africa to become home to Africom headquarters it must be led by the foreign relations element in the national defence force with support from the Department of International Relations and Co-operation,” the retired air force colonel said adding he “wondered just how much they would be allowed to do”.

This comment comes in the light of what former defence minister Mosiuoa Lekota said when a possible Africom HQ move to Botswana came up during his 1999 to 2008 term as South African Minister of Defence. He reportedly said “there is no room for Americans in southern Africa”. This is in line with how Heitman still sees government’s view on the majority of matters involving President Donald Trump and the country he leads.