The United States’s relationship with the African continent is receiving unusual scrutiny following the former US Secretary of State’s brief pre-firing visit earlier this month and a trickle of new information about a failed anti-ISIS mission in October. Minimal coverage by international media has left Americans, and much of the world, unaware that US troops have recently been active in almost every African country. Thousands are believed to be stationed across the continent, but years of extraordinary secrecy and non-cooperation with journalists have sown confusion about precisely how many there are, where they are, and what they do. We know there are 500 in Somalia and 800 in Niger for example. Most American military activity is that of Africom, the US Africa Command, established in 2007 with headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany.
Over the past decade, international media have rarely independently assessed Africom’s presence, mostly reporting a story told to them by the US government. The ways media describe, or obscure, new forms of imperialism in Africa – including that vast US military presence – are a topic of my research. Along with Dr. Toussaint Nothias of Stanford University, we’ve examined how Chinese and US expansions in Africa are represented by three prominent global media organizations online: Al Jazeera English, BBC, and CNN. In one part of this research, we found that these outlets reported on the US military in Africa slightly more than it did China’s ongoing economic expansion. However, US military activity in most of the countries where it was known to occur was neglected, and few critical or investigative stories have appeared. This has left the US military in Africa to operate in the shadows, and it is a concern that the US government fails to account for the apparent violation of the War Powers Resolution requiring Congressional approval of foreign combat: US troops are known to have been involved in combat in at least three African countries (and the Pentagon is seeking approval of combat pay for some US troops in Africa). Investigations by enterprising net-native journalists – in contrast to the near silence of traditional (legacy) media – have shed light on two stories revealing that US combat, on the Niger-Mali border and in Somalia.
The first case was that of La David Johnson, the best known of four US soldiers killed in what a Buzzfeed journalist found to be “a poorly executed mission intended to gather information about three senior ISIS militants.” The deaths in early October 2017 of the four, and four Nigerien soldiers with them, would have quickly faded from public concern if it hadn’t been for a US Congresswoman speaking out about an insensitive phone call by the US President to Johnson’s widow. That dominated headlines long enough to inspire some politicians and journalists, to question why American soldiers were fighting in the Sahara; a New York Times columnist criticized “sending soldiers to fight a problem that is clearly being exacerbated by climate and population trends, while eliminating all our tools to mitigate these trends.”
Buzzfeed’s Dakar correspondent did what more established news organizations had not bothered to do by traveling into the desert to find sources other than the US government. Interest isn’t confined to the net-natives: The New York Review of Books recently provided an exposé of aspects of Africom’s expansion, and this month the New York Times published their own investigation in a similar vein to Buzzfeed’s, signaling a new willingness by even the most mainstream of media to ask what US soldiers are doing in Africa.
In the second story, over 500 people died in a truck bombing in the bustling civic district of Mogadishu in mid-October. Somali officials who knew the bomber’s backstory describe a motivation of vengeance for a US military attack on his village which left ten civilians dead. Recently, journalists dug into that attack in the Somali village of Barire in August. According to Christina Goldbaum, a reporter for The Dailybeast, witnesses report “US Special Operators firing on unarmed civilians, using human intelligence from sources widely considered untrustworthy to Somalis in the region,” and that they photographed the bodies of the dead after placing weapons next them which had been found nearby. The reporter was told “American diplomats also pressured the Somali government to bury the unfavourable findings of a Somali Federal Government-led investigation.” Africom told the press that the Somali army was in the area, with the US acting in a supporting role, but The Dailybeast was shown bullet casings from US weapons, not Somali ones.
These investigations contrast with what our research has shown to be a generally supportive, and very limited, media portrayal of US activity. It is not an easy story to report — reporters working on the larger Africom story have been met with consistent obfuscation. Prior to the Mogadishu bombing, US military activity in Somalia had been reported mostly in terms of “anti-terrorist” successes described to journalists by Africom press releases issued from their Stuttgart headquarters. Our research has found that China and the US both portray their engagements across Africa as welcome, collaborative, and benign. We found global media mostly present a narrative of a predatory China and supportive United States. An ongoing follow-on project examines the extent to which African’s are portrayed as having control over foreign involvements in their countries.
The rare journalistic investigations I’ve referred to are welcome, given the need for accountability and consideration of the impacts of foreign militaries. It is encouraging that investigation-hungry net-native correspondents, like those cited here, are willing to challenge official storylines, but if precedent holds sway, Tillerson’s visit may have allowed the US government to reclaim the media narrative, shifting the focus from secretive and unaccountable combat operations to one of welcome security collaborations with African partners.
Two related trends threaten more unaccountable military expansion. One is that the current US administration seems to feel entitled to secure foreign resources through military means. In the age of Trump, it is not clear that the exposure of covert warfare in Africa (established by Bush and Obama) will raise an eyebrow at home; and it is not difficult to imagine escalation, rather than embarrassed retrenchment, as the US’ response to publicity. A lack of concern for international opinion is also implied by the Trump administration’s decision give local commanders the authority to order drone attacks without seeking permission from Washington, resulting in the extent of lethal drone attacks in Africa more than doubling since 2017, as the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has found.
The other trend is that US mercenary companies which grew rich on US contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan are going to work around Africa, not just for the US but for China, threatening an unaccountable and unstoppable foreign militarization of the continent. At the center of this new dawn for mercenaries is Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater and brother of a billionaire member of the Trump cabinet. His company is now called “Frontier Services Group,” and part Chinese-owned, it is based in Hong Kong. Prince’s private air force has been seen flying US troops in Central Africa, and Prince himself was in Maputo in December, boasting of a deal with the Mozambican government to operate and secure their controversial state-owned fishing fleet.
This month’s abortive US diplomatic foray to Africa has offered news media a chance to highlight America’s creeping Afghanistan-ization of Africa — as some intrepid net-natives (and a few others) have, or the option to slip back into a decade-long pattern of echoing a US government script about amicable partnership with the continent while hidden militarization escalates. Time will tell which way they go.