On April 25, 2022 the U.S. government announced the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) will open an Office of Security Cooperation at the U.S. Embassy in Zambia. AFRICOM Brigadier General Peter Bailey, Deputy Director for Strategy, Engagement, and Programs, made the announcement during a meeting with President Hakainde Hichilema.

The announcement attracted local and international attention. Critics argued that the move would effectively set the ground for the advancement of US military interests in Africa. Some diplomatic sources contend this is not the correct position. AFRICOM is not new to controversy on the continent, could there be more than meets the eye?

Historical background

On Feb. 6, 2007, then-U.S. President George W. Bush directed the creation of the U.S. Africa Command. The decision was the culmination of several years of deliberation within the Department of Defense acknowledging the growing strategic importance of Africa.

U.S. Africa Command is headquartered in Stuttgart, Germany, and is one of 11 U.S. Department of Defense combatant commands, each with a geographic or functional mission that provides command and control of military forces in peace and war. U.S. Africa Command employs the broad-reaching diplomacy, development, and defence approach to foster interagency efforts and help negate the drivers of conflict and extremism in Africa.

A full-spectrum combatant command, the U.S. Africa Command is responsible for all U.S. Department of Defense operations, exercises, and security cooperation on the African continent, its island nations, and surrounding waters. The area of responsibility consists of 53 African states, more than 800 ethnic groups, over 1,000 languages, vast natural resources, a landmass of 11.2 million square miles (three-and-a-half times the size of the U.S.), and nearly 19,000 miles of coastland.

U.S. Africa Command began initial operations on Oct. 1, 2007, and became fully operational on Oct. 1, 2008. The new command would ensure DoD harmonized its efforts in Africa with those of the U.S. Department of State as well as other U.S. government agencies.

U.S. Africa Command assumed responsibility for U.S. military activities in areas that had been part of three geographical commands previously, and now included all of Africa except Egypt. U.S. Africa Command was chartered to conduct sustained security engagements to promote a stable and secure political environment in Africa in support of U.S. foreign policy.

African Resistance

Several countries in Africa resisted the idea of AFRICOM and specific proposals to have it headquartered on the continent. When the Pentagon sought to locate its newly formed Africa Command (AFRICOM) somewhere in Africa in 2007, Botswana and Liberia were reportedly eager to host it. But then South African president Thabo Mbeki and his defence minister Mosiuoa Lekota mobilised the continent to oppose the move. They said it would constitute an unacceptable violation of Africa’s sovereignty.

The United States (US) eventually backed down and opted instead for Stuttgart, where its Europe Command was already installed.  The Institute for Security Studies (ISS) observes that moving the AFRICOM Headquarters to Africa would only be symbolic. With such a large de facto US military presence in Africa anyway, AFRICOM headquarters are no more than an administrative centre that could be located anywhere.

America already has a significant military presence on the continent. According to ISS, 13 foreign countries now have a known military presence in Africa, mostly concentrated in the Horn where they maintain 11 military bases.

The US and France have the greatest number of troops; France has an estimated 7 550 military personnel spread across the continent (excluding United Nations operations) with the US reported to have about 7 000 special forces on rotation in Africa, carrying out joint operations with national militaries against jihadists. Another 2 000 soldiers are conducting training missions in some 40 African countries.

Even in terms of the African Union, One AU watcher told the ISS that AFRICOM is deeply embedded in the AU. It has an attaché to the Peace and Security Department. It has a unit in the embassy specifically focusing on the AU that has been heavily involved in enunciating a number of AU policies, particularly on maritime security, Sahel security, and deployment of several missions. It has also embedded staff in the AU early warning unit and Peace Support Operations Division.

During the Trump Presidency in July 2020, AFRICOM Commander General Stephen Townsend announced that: “US Africa Command has been told to plan to move.” This would be part of the Pentagon’s plan to withdraw 12 000 troops from Germany after President Donald Trump decided to cut back on America’s military presence in that country. Trump’s position was that Berlin wasn’t meeting its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) collective defence commitment to spend at least 2% of its GDP on its military.

Townsend said AFRICOM was looking for a new location either in Europe or the US. Officials reportedly said privately that the command wasn’t looking for a new headquarters in Africa. This was apparently to avoid the impression that the US was militarising its relations with the continent.

Some African countries have however not shied away from requesting to host the AFRICOM. For instance in 2021 after years of resistance and opposition by Nigeria to the idea, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, in a virtual meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, requested that the United States move the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) headquarters from  Germany to Africa.

Zambia’s decision to host a cooperation office

In recent days, social and mainstream media in Zambia the region was awash with varying information concerning the establishment of the United States Security Cooperation office by the government of the United States of America in Zambia.

Since 2014, the U.S. government has invested over 136 million kwacha ($8 million) in assistance for seven iterations of pre-deployment training for Zambian Battalions deployed to the United Nations Multidimensional Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA).

Zambia’s Defence Minister Ambrose Lufuma in a statement to the media said that Zambia had no intention of establishing or housing any military bases on her soil through the USA African Command -AFRICOM.

Mr Lufuma said contrary to assertions, the office being created was one for Security Cooperation which will be based at the US Embassy in Lusaka. He said the office will work with the Zambian defence force to enhance military to military relations, expand areas of cooperation in force management and modernisation, as well as military professionalism among other areas.

The defence minister did not take kindly the conversations around setting up of the AFRICOM cooperation office in Zambia. He warned both the media and social media users of dire consequences for spreading what he termed as “misinformation meant to tarnish Zambia’s existing cordial relationship with neighbouring countries and strategic partners, to desist or face the wrath of the law as such hinges on the security and territorial integrity of the nation.”

Comments that did not go well with the Zambian opposition leader, Sean Tembo, who appealed to the minister to desist from issuing threats against citizens who wish to comment on the matter.

“Both the Minister and the President should be reminded that the Republic of Zambia is vested in its citizens and that as elected representatives, their role is that of temporary custodians on behalf of the people. Therefore, the people have a final say on how this country is governed, and no one should gag or threaten the people. Let the people talk.”

The media has also rejected this directive arguing that media freedom was guaranteed as long as the media believed its sources were credible.

Regional criticism

Some of the strongest regional responses to this development were from Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe government spokesman Nick Mangwana criticised Zambian President Hakainde Hichilema, issuing undiplomatic social media rants over reports the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) was opening an office in Zambia. He received some criticism from within and outside Zimbabwe for not using diplomatic means to air his concerns.

Nick was not the only Zimbabwean concerned with the development in Zambia, Labour, Economists and African Democrats party (LEAD) President Linda Tsungirirai Masarira vehemently condemned Zambia’s decision describing it as a direct threat to Zimbabwe’s territorial integrity. She argued that the US is fighting to democratize Africa to control Africa and it’s resources.

“This is imperialism of Africa and it has always been coming ever since Hichilema took over the reigns in Zambia. This move is posing a security threat to the African continent and not only is it going to cause instability in Southern Africa by inviting the American Enemies to attack Southern Africa.

America has numerous enemies and having military offices in Zambia attracts Islamic Terrorist attacks and creates a launchpad for the US to carry out regime change invasion on countries that are not agreeing with it’s foreign policy and Zimbabwe is number one target because of its stance of land and black economic Empowerment.”

She remembered how Zambia suffered brutal attacks from the colonial Smith Regime who unleashed brutal force at Freedom camp and Mukushi, killing hundreds of Zimbabwean liberation war fighters that were housed by Zambia.

“In all honesty Kenneth Kaunda should be turning in his grave to see this happening now. What Hichilema is doing is a betrayal of fellow African countries and is creating a room for proxy wars that ravaged Middle North Africa and the Middle east countries like Libya and Syria”

She called on the SADC troika and SADC heads of state to educate Zambia on the risks that President Hichilema was dragging Zambia into by allowing himself to be the Zelensky of Southern Africa. She also called on President Mnangagwa of Zaimbabwe to should to play an active role in uniting SADC states against the impending recolonization of Africa which is being launchpadded in Zambia. History has a way of repeating itself,

Political analysts raised alarm over the announcement by the United States of America Embassy in Zambia that the infamous United States Africa Command is opening an office in Zambia. Research Analyst Nkosana Maphosa said Southern Africa must be on high alert and monitor the development closely and described Zambian President Hakainde Hichilema as a security threat to SADC and Zimbabwe’s territorial integrity.

Domestic criticism

Leading opposition leader for the National Democratic Congress Saboi Imboela said the opposition were more concerned about Zambia’s peace and security, as well as sovereignty. Territorial integrity ranks higher than economic development even on the functions of government.

“You can’t tell us to be happy with electric cars (Zambia and DRC recently penned an agreement to produce electric car batteries) which we’ve not seen when our sovereignty is at stake. The government has a duty to protect us and not sell us off.”

A former Minister of Transport and Communications Mutotwe Kafwaya who is also Lunte Member of Parliament under the Patriotic Front observed that the proposed establishment of an AFRICOM coordination office in Zambia had huge potential ramifications both for the country and the region at large.

“Please do not forget about ACCOUNTABILITY just because this is AFRICOM. The same Zambians who want Government to fight corruption, do not want AFRICOM established in their country. It may be beneficial to listen and accept the will of the people. Remember that as Government, you are accountable to the people who placed their sovereignty under your leadership.”

He added that if the Zambian government proceeded with the establishment of the office despite utter rejection by the people, one or two questions or more may then beg answers such as whose interests it would serve and secondly what benefits shall accrue to the Zambian people if the command is established.

Operation Young Vote, a leading governance and civic rights organisation in Zambia advised the Zambian government to subject the decision to a national referendum.

OYV Director Guess Nyirenda said his organisation was convinced that subjecting this matter to a popular vote through a referendum will not only accord the Zambian citizens an opportunity to weigh-in and be part of this mammoth decision for or against but it will also bring to the fore the demerits and merits including the value that Zambia and Southern Africa would have or otherwise out of such an undertaking.

Leading political figure Sean Tembo of the Patriots for Economic Progress (PeP) said President Hakainde Hichilema erred when he made a unilateral decision to welcome the military presence of another country on the sovereign soil of Zambia without seeking Parliamentary approval nor stakeholder input.

“The powers of a President are clearly defined in article 90 to 98 of the Republican Constitution, and do not include negotiating, compromising or undermining the sovereignty of the Republic. By unilaterally authorizing the presence of a foreign military on Zambian soil without Parliamentary approval, President Hakainde Hichilema breached the Constitution of the Republic of Zambia.  It is worth noting here that the nature, scope, location or magnitude of the planned AFRICOM presence in Zambia does not matter. What matters is that a foreign military was illegally authorized to operate on Zambian soil by the President.”

He also noted that AFRICOM does not fall under the US Department of State, which is responsible for diplomatic relations with other countries.

“As Patriots for Economic Progress, we are not interested in the Minister’s grammatical gymnastics. It does not matter whether the Minister refers to AFRICOM’s planned presence in Zambia as an office of security cooperation or a military base or military barracks. The bottom line is that the military personnel of another country will be on Zambia’s sovereign soil.”

New Heritage Party President Chishala Kateka argued that AFRICOM was only established to advance American interests.

“Why did we have to learn about this via the American Embassy’s website with no similar announcement by our own Government? – Our Government’s communication needs to be improved. Certain national decisions (like the debt contraction and those bordering on national policy) are so serious that they cannot be made in an arbitrary manner by the Executive and need to be taken to Parliament.  This is critical to the avoidance of excesses by any arm of the Government – especially the Executive.  Our Executive must become alert to the fact that they cannot make decisions that border on the shifting of our foreign policy arbitrarily.”

Cover Image: Courtesy US Embassy, Zaambia