Germany on safari: A new military scramble for Africa?

In June this year, I attended a public discussion on ‘Crises in Africa’ organized by the PR Department of the German military (Bundeswehr) in Berlin. Since scrapping conscription in 2011, the army of Europe’s most populous country has been struggling to attract young recruits, as few are enthusiastic to serve in the armed forces.

At the forefront of this ‘hearts and minds’ offensive is the “Bundeswehr Showroom”, a sparkling flagship store in central Berlin: modern, tidy, militaristic. For its African crises event, the organizers left nothing to chance. There were decorative images of fighter jets, submarines and tanks. An eloquent, youthful Navy lieutenant with a degree in political science spoke to us about Africa’s security challenges and possible German military strategies for the future.

Germany’s concern for ‘African security’ is no surprise, especially with the media’s recent focus on Ebola, Boko Haram, and the rising numbers of (African) refugees landing on European shores. The German electorate demands reassurances and the military’s growing budget of nearly $40bn – the second largest in Merkel’s government – needs to be spent.

In April 2014, Germany’s Minister of Defence, Ursula von der Leyen, announced a strategic shift to more military engagement in Africa, neatly dressed in the cushy language of “assuming responsibility” for solving the continent’s conflicts. In the post-WWII years, Germany had adopted a policy of non-deployment beyond its own borders, also because a vast majority of the population has traditionally been strictly averse towards military adventures overseas. But with the country’s reunification in 1990, the German government’s position changed. Soon followed contentious military operations under the guise of NATO obligations in the Persian Gulf (1991), Turkey (1991), and Kosovo (1999). This trend now continues with Von der Leyen’s vision of more boots on African ground, as in Mali, Central Africa Republic and South Sudan. Militarizing its foreign policy is Berlin’s newest panacea, even deploying Bundeswehr soldiers to assist in containing Liberia’s Ebola epidemic in November 2014.

But German soldiers are no strangers to Africa. The inglorious history of Germany’s colonial protection force (Schutztruppe) is well-documented, a history of coercion, genocide and “theatrical colonial rule” in today’s Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, Togo, Namibia and Cameroon. In World War II, Nazi Germany again fantasized about reclaiming these colonies, and restoring Germany’s imperial grandeur. Hitler’s backing of Benito Mussolini’s colonial ambitions drove the German Africa Corps (Afrikakorps) into the soon abortive North African Campaign (1940-1943). Eventually, Germany’s 1945 defeat in World War II marked the end of these imperial dreams. While France and Britain were confronted with Africa’s decolonization movements in the 1950s and 1960s, Germany had become a mere spectator.

Paradoxically, while Germany’s recent history of militarism and Nazi fascism in theory led to more sensitivity towards such dangerous tendencies, the country’s colonial heritage seems inconsequential for its newly-militarized engagement with Africa and debates in society at large. Today, Germany participates with some 570 soldiers in nine missions across the continent, of which the EU’s anti-piracy operation ATALANTA is the largest.

The “Bundeswehr Showroom” is sanitized of these painful colonial memories, infused instead with Von der Leyen’s vision of a new German role in Africa. In government statements, Berlin indicates its desire to mimic some French policies towards Africa and seek closer security cooperation with Paris. However, this aspiration ignores the fact that French ties with former African colonies – known as Franҫafriquerepresent a neo-colonial dependency relationship on unequal terms. As the world’s fourth largest arms exporter, Germany’s arms manufacturers already pocket great portions of African capital and ensure the continuous flow of weapons into conflict zones, despite targeted bans on exports. A commentator in the weekly Die Zeit argued that Germany is “caught between [its] hard interests and soft values”. Considering the Merkel government’s increase in the defence budget and more recent European policy proposals, such as military action against smugglers in North Africa, I am pessimistic about which of the above two options will prevail.

In Berlin that evening, the message was clear: the Bundeswehr is increasingly being deployed for humanitarian emergencies (and it does so along with other militaries) – for instance by rescuing asylum-seekers in the Mediterranean. Without doubt, saving lives is commendable, yet we forget that armies are no substitutes for civil emergency response, coastguards, or humanitarian agencies. Germany’s government civil protection mechanisms, such as the Federal Agency for Technical Relief (THW) – which was supporting anti-Ebola operations in Sierra Leone – are based on voluntary work, understaffed, underfunded and not equipped with adequate technology for sustained world-wide operations. By overfunding the military, successive governments have made the Bundeswehr logistically indispensable for emergency situations.

This mix of militarized humanitarianism, arms exports and security-centred development strategies is embodied in the government’s approach of “comprehensive security” (Vernetzte Sicherheit), a thin disguise for making security – and inevitably military engagement – a new priority in dealing with development issues. In some ways, Germany’s military shift, and its renewed search for a “place in the sun” in a contemporary scramble for Africa, represents the country’s belated entry into a “colonial present“. However this is not an inescapable future without an alternative. It is high time to de-militarize our minds, as well as government budgets.

Hanno Brankamp

Hanno Brankamp was an Attaché at the British Institute in Eastern Africa (BIEA) in Nairobi and has worked for UNHCR in Tanzania. His PhD research focuses on refugees in East Africa, security in refugee camps and vigilantism.

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