The West and East Approach to Africa after 9/11

Parts of Africa have become zones of interest for the US, but its focus on military operations might be counter-productive. Instead the decision by China to focus on resources and commerce could prove far greater in significance.

By Richard Dowden, Director of the Royal African Society

Many African countries in the Sahel have a Muslim north and a Christian south. 9/11 opened up or deepened that difference, although in many areas the two religions live together peacefully. Although most people were appalled at the atrocity in 2001, it also made many Africans realise that the West was vulnerable. In places where an anti-Western Islamic movement existed, it may have inspired young militants to support or join Al-Qa'ida.

9/11 also made America look at Africa again - more closely. After years of indifference and neglect by the West after the end of the Cold War, poor - often Muslim - parts of Africa became new zones of interest. The Muslim populations of North Africa, the Sahara and the Sahel were of particular concern. That included Somalia, which had been left to stew in its own self-mutilating madness since 1995. Suddenly Washington's eye was on it again.

But, it seems, only to track down 'the bad guys' and try to get a half decent government in place. In Sudan the government feared a similar attack to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and it agreed to a peace agreement that led to the independence of the south on 9 July 2011. AFRICOM, a non-kinetic US military command, was set up to train African armies and, originally, to 'do development' in Africa. But no African country would give it a base. Nevertheless, the US military began to operate in many parts of Africa where Al-Qa'ida operatives and sympathisers were suspected. They used special forces and drones to search and destroy. Only slowly did Washington begin to realise that 'getting the bad guys' by military means might be counter-productive. It might create even more bad guys. Washington would have to do more to win hearts and minds in Africa than build a few wells to offset the mayhem their military interventions caused.

Meanwhile, in much of Africa, politics driven almost entirely by obscure local rivalries continued to be the major factor. Released from the superpower-backed dictators of the Cold War, Africa produced few new leaders of stature. The smartest soon learned how to manage first-past-the-post, winner-takes-all multiparty democracy and devoted their time to lining their pockets and feeding their constituents to ensure re-election.

Yet largely in spite of governments, African economies began to grow. By coincidence this started around the time of 9/11. The revival was driven by China's demand for Africa's raw materials, the growth of mobile telephony and general connectivity, and a growing professional African middle class. Africa was becoming more interesting for business, especially oil and mining companies. Indeed, China's decision taken in the late 1990s to go to Africa for resources and commerce will probably prove to be a far greater globally significant event than 9/11. ¡

Richard Dowden is Director of the Royal African Society.

This commentary first appeared in The RUSI Journal


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