13 May 2017
Africa remains a key territory on the
global chessboard of the 21st century. Rich in oil and natural resources, the
continent holds a strategic position.
Sub-Saharan Africa is home to six of the
world's 10 fastest growing economies. North Africa counts with vast oil and
natural gas deposits, the Sahara holds the most strategic nuclear ore, and
resources such as coltan, gold, and copper, among many others, are abundant in
the continent. But despite its position and resources, conflict and chaos have
spread throughout the continent. At the heart of this turmoil is a strategic territory:
The region that straddles the Sahara to the
north and the savannas in the south has become an important new front in the
so-called war against terrorism.
But is the official narrative, the fight
against terrorism, masking a larger battle? Have the resource wars of the 21st
century already begun?
"What we are currently experiencing
can be described as 'a new scramble for Africa'," says Jean Batou,
Professor of History at Lausanne University.
Controls Mali, Controls West Africa'
At the centre of the troubled region of the
Sahel is the nation of Mali, which is among the world's poorest. Unemployment
is rampant and most people survive hand to mouth.
Yet, back in the 13th century, the Mali
empire extended over much of West Africa and was extraordinarily wealthy and
powerful. Ivory and gold made it a major crossroads for global trade at the
time. But inevitably, these resources lead to conquests.
"We are the transition between North
Africa and Africa that reaches the ocean and the forests. This gives us an
important strategic position: whoever controls Mali, controls West Africa - if
not the whole of Africa ... That's why this region became so coveted,"
says Doulaye Konate from the Association of African Historians.
The imperial European powers unveiled their
plans to colonise Mali and the rest of Africa at the Berlin Conference in 1885.
Britain, Belgium, Portugal, Spain, Germany, Italy and France, each got their
"The arrival of colonisation tore us
apart. It felt like a cut, almost like a surgical operation," Konate says.
The French colonial empire extended over
much of western and northern Africa, but in the late 1950s the winds of freedom
started blowing across Africa, and France was to lose all its colonies.
However, the euphoria of independence was
short. France retained troops, bases and political influence over its former
colonies: the policy of "France-Afrique" was born.
"France was Africa's watchdog,
defending the West in the region," says Antoine Glaser, author of
US And The Threat Of 'Terrorism'
In the 1960s, the discovery of huge oil
reserves in the Gulf of Guinea attracted a new player: the United States.
The US made military as well as economic
investments on the African continent and Africa became a battleground in the
In 1992, the US launched a so-called
humanitarian intervention in the strategic Horn of Africa. The US sent 28,000
soldiers to Somalia to help to put an end to a civil war. The operation ended
in disaster two years later after American soldiers were captured and killed,
images of their mutilated bodies broadcast around the world. They decided to
In 2001, the attack on the World Trade
Centre reconfigured the geopolitics of the world. The US launched a war in
Afghanistan - a war that would soon spread far beyond.
A few months after September 11, the US
military returned to the Horn of Africa with plans to stay. They established
their first military base in Djibouti.
"The Sahel played a key role in
looking at the movement of weapons, the movement of potential foreign fighters,
and organised crime ...," says Rudolph Atallah, the former Director of
Africa Counter-Terrorism, US Department of Defence.
US Africa Command (AFRICOM)
The United States is the only country to have
divided the world into separate military sectors to monitor and patrol,
NORTHCOM, PACOM, SOUTHCOM, EUCOM, CENTCOM and now AFRICOM.
Under the stated goals of fighting
terrorism and providing humanitarian assistance, AFRICOM implanted itself on
the continent, conducting military exercises with a growing number of African
The establishment of AFRICOM was key for
the consolidation of US interests in Africa.
The Americans sought to establish the
headquarters of AFRICOM as well as a headquarters for the CIA in Mali. The
problem was that the Africans had a common position of refusing the
establishment of new military bases.
This opposition forced the US to set up the
command of AFRICOM thousands of miles away, in Stuttgart, Germany.
Gaddafi: The 'mad dog of the Middle East'
African resistance to AFRICOM was
spearheaded by Muammar Gaddafi, the Libyan leader.
President Ronald Reagan had labelled him
the "mad dog of the Middle East" and had tried to assassinate him in
1986 by bombing his palace.
The Libyan leader's independence and
influence flowed from the vast petroleum reserves, the largest in Africa, which
he had nationalised when he took power.
Gaddafi wanted to demonstrate that Africa
could develop without depending on the Western banking system or the
International Monetary Fund.
"From the beginning of his political
career as a leader, Muammar Gaddafi was opposed to a foreign military presence
in Africa. One of the first things he did after coming to power in 1969 was to
expel the British and US military bases in Libya itself," Maximilian
Forte, the author of Slouching Towards Sirte: Nato's war on Libya and Africa,
But in March 2011, as the Arab's Spring
spread through North Africa, France and the United States decided to act. This
was AFRICOM'S first war and its commander-in-chief was the first
The fall of Gaddafi produced a shockwave
that would be felt far beyond Libya.
"Unfortunately there was not a very
good handle on the 40,000-plus weapons that Gaddafi had, so quickly, over
35,000 disappeared," Atallah says.
Some of the weapons fell into the hands of
the Libyan rebels. Others, including anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles,
fell into the hands of Tuareg fighters who fought alongside Gaddafi.
The heavily armed Tuaregs formed a new
fighting force, the MNLA, and launched an offensive against the government in
Bamako in January 2012.
Tuareg and other rebel forces invaded the
major cities of northern Mali. Despite years of training and millions spent, the
West's greatest fear became a reality: a so-called Islamic state was
established in northern Mali.
"Nobody believed that a few hundred
'Jihadist fighters' would take over [Bamako] a city of three million people
where they had no significant presence," says Batou.
But soon the French armed forces lent their
support to the Malian units. The rebel advance was stopped and in just two
weeks, the French regained the north. The French army claimed to have killed
hundreds of so-called terrorists. The former colonial power had become the
saviour of the country.
El Dorado of the Sahel'
Despite the chaos, wars and revolutions,
the interest of Europeans, Americans and the Chinese remains high in what may
be the largest untapped oil reserves on the continent, "the El Dorado of
the Sahel", which extends from Mauritania to Algeria across north Mali.
The interest of major US energy companies
in Africa has not decreased. The needs of Asia and Europe will not stop
growing. Nearly $2 trillion of investments in African oil and gas are expected
in the next two decades.
"We all know oil resources are
becoming increasingly rare. The last major reserves of oil in Africa will
become increasingly important. Pre-positioning oneself with a view to
exploiting these resources is vital," says Batou.
In May 2014, US President Barack Obama
announced that he would allocate an additional $5bn to the fight against global
An increasing number of African governments
have signed on to the AFRICOM programme, like in Niger, where the US military
brought together African forces comprising 1,000 soldiers from 17 countries for
The US have also established drone bases in
Djibouti, Niger, Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia, South Sudan, Burkina Faso and the
Seychelles, and sent troops to Liberia during the Ebola crisis in 2014.
Not to be outdone, France also announced
plans to increase its presence in the Sahel with a redeployment of 3,000
The increasing militarisation of Africa is
a new profit centre, coveted by the military-industrial complex with millions
of dollars of contracts for arms manufacturers and private contractors.
More than 130 years after the Berlin
Conference, a new division of the African continent is underway as new powers
seek to ensure oil supplies, strategic minerals, arable land and even the water
under the desert sands.
"In reality, the big issues are not
being addressed. It is as though the West lives off wars, as though wars need
to be created, for them to justify their power," says Imam Mahmoud Dicko,
president of the Islamic High Council of Mali.