The ambush of a small band of U.S. Special Forces patrolling in some remote village in Niger dominated the news with the death of four U.S. Army soldiers. Amidst the din of President Donald Trump quarrel with the widow of one of the slain soldiers, many questions have surfaced regarding the activities of American soldiers in Tongo Tongo, Niger, or Africa for that matter.
The four ambushed soldiers were part of a 12 men patrol collecting information on terrorists operating in the area according to the military. They were accompanied by 30 Nigerien military that also lost five of their comrades. The joint patrol is part of the U.S. campaign in the region to train their military counterparts deal with the growing insurgencies and terrorist activities in the area.
The Pentagon and the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) are conducting a joint probe as to what happened that led to the ambush and death of the soldiers, why it took two days to recover one of the soldiers a mile away from the ambush site, why the lack of intelligence regarding the presence of the terrorists, and why they were lightly armed while in patrol some 120 miles away from the capital. These are vitals questions that will most likely be answered in time, in whole or in part, to allow everyone to move on.
The part about what the American soldiers were doing in that part of the world can simply be satisfied with the campaign against terrorism angle. Gen. Tom Waldhauser, head of U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) succinctly put it that the U.S. forces are there to put terrorist groups on the continent in check and prevent another 9/11 attack on American homeland. Republican hawks like Senator Lindsey Graham loves that idea along with Senator John McCain and they will make sure Secretary of Defense Gen. James Mattis gets the resources he needs. Better to turn third world countries into ruins than fighting the war in America.
Facts will come out pointing to the lack of resources and support for the 800 some special forces operating in Niger. Hearings will be held and money will pour to the Department of Defense (DoD) and further expand the campaign. General Mattis recently informed legislators in Capitol Hill to expect an expanded role in Africa as the mission and capabilities are evolving. The military word for this is mission creep.
With more military missions or engagements in Africa naturally come deaths of American servicemen and women and the morbid news will make Americans believe that the U.S. is fighting a just war and will support the military’s expanded role in Africa. Lost in all these is the big picture as to what really constitute the American national interest there. In a nutshell, Africa the next battlefield is really about China and the U.S. competing for the soul of Africa. Yes, it is all about resources like oil and rare minerals that are critical in the manufacture of sensitive military hardware and information technology. China being an adversary will not be allowed to lord it over in Africa and control these resources.
At the moment, there are no direct combat missions for US troops in Niger. Niger, after all, is a small African country torn by tribalism and suffering from severe poverty, frequent drought, endemic diseases, high illiteracy and population growth. Most of the country, in a real sense, is hardly habitable because the Sahara Desert covers about 65% of Niger so why even patrol there? Well, Niger happens to have one of the largest uranium deposits in the region and as well as oil waiting to be exploited with foreign investments.
Niger was once colonized by France and French companies enjoyed the profits of their labor in that country under the protection of their government. They made huge profits by harvesting Niger’s uranium and supplying them to French owned nuclear power plants handling at least 75% of France’s electricity needs. But France never really helped Niger develop into a decent economy. No roads, railroads, or other infrastructure needed to jump start or harness the country’s economy were ever built. Niger was let go in 1960 and became an independent state but French influence is very much in the region. Since then the country has been beset by military coups fueling instability.
Enter the Dragon. With China’s years of booming economy, investment monies found their way to the continent. China conducts nearly $200 billion dollars in annual trade in Africa and is doing what French and American companies were unwilling to do. And of course, Nigeriens love it because it brings food to the table. But as in anything, China’s investments come with a steep price (like China as a majority owner) and therefore, encountering resistance not only in Niger but in other parts of Africa where China has invested heavily.
China’s footprint has grown tremendously in Africa as it continue to pour billions of investment dollars in areas where the U.S. has established presence. In 2002, the US decided to build up Djibouti as a main staging area for the war on terror in eastern and sub-Saharan Africa, dubbed “Operation Enduring Freedom” and boosts its presence there. This was the time when the Bush administration was pursuing a claim (that turned out to be a false and based on forged documents) that Iraq’s Saddam Hussein bought some “yellow cake” or uranium from Niger for his Weapons of Mass Destruction program - as a pretext for the invasion of Iraq. The impetus for Niger’s placement on the radar took off shortly thereafter.
Djibouti, on the other hand, is a tiny country in the Horn of Africa but is strategically located bordering Somalia and the Gulf of Eden where Yemen is some 20 miles away. America’s focus then was the growing Al Qaeda threat in the region emanating from Yemen. But after the Middle East was once again destabilized after the invasion of Iraq, it was but natural that the terrorism campaign would spread to Africa. AFRICOM was established in 2007 with over 6,000 troops stationed in 53 of 54 African countries (4,000 in Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti); the US military projected power in that part of the world and expanded the roles for American drones. Still, American overall commitment there pales when compared to the Chinese. When the U.S. renewed a 20-year lease of Camp Lemonnier, the U.S. promised $1.4 billion dollars investment to modernize the base.
China, on the other hand, embarked on an economic diplomacy and built a $5 billion state of the art port in Djibouti and another $10 billion for a railway connecting Djibouti to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and linking Niger in between with a $10 billion project on petrochemicals to offset those lost in Libya. The purpose is clear and that is to hasten transfer of Niger’s uranium, precious metals, and oil to China while countering U.S. waning commitment and influence in the region. Chinese investments also include billions of dollars of direct trade investments, foreign aid, and trade particularly in Angola, Chad, Sudan, Mozambique, South Africa, and Tanzania among others.
This growing China activity in the region has caught the eye of several U.S. legislators in 2011 who were worried that China’s interests will start to complicate American counter terrorism activities in the region. In July this year, China deployed two warships to Djibouti where a new Chinese Naval base is being constructed. China clearly wants to protect its investment in the region and projecting power is one way of informing the West of its national interest in the region. They too would soon deploy more troops in the region.
But more than that, China’s aggressive posturing was a calculated reaction to the destabilization of Libya when its leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown by the French and the Americans in 2011. Libya exported 11% of its oil (1.5 million barrels per day) to China before Gaddafi’s downfall. Despite being involved in terrorist activities for years, Gaddafi stayed in power for decades and maintained friendship with the West because of its oil. Being the largest holder of proven oil reserves in Africa, Libya has its perks. It was when Gaddafi started pushing for a common gold-based currency in the region that the French and the Americans took him seriously. A Pan African currency (dinar) would devastate the French African franc and the dollar would suffer greatly and devalued – not to mention the global monetary system. Gaddafi apparently wanted to stop payment for Libya’s oil in dollar and wanted the Gold Dinar instead. So from an “important ally,” a “model,” and a “stabilizing” power in Africa, Gaddafi
went from friend to foe overnight and was targeted by NATO on humanitarian ground (genocide of his own people).
This important event in history would soon change the landscape of Africa. Before his death, Gaddafi predicted that his downfall would precipitate an upheaval and power struggles and those jihadists would conquer and subjugate northern Africa which is mostly Muslim countries, Niger included. He was correct as his vast arsenal of military weapons and wealth found its way to bad actors in the region: Boko Haram (Nigeria), Al Shabaab (Somalia), Ansar al-Sharia (Tunisia, Libya), Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ambushed the U.S. Army soldiers in Niger) and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (south end of Sahara Desert and Mali).
The competition between these powers will certainly be beneficial to Africa but with economic development comes associated ills like debt – they have to payback these loans – a magnet for revolutionaries exploiting poverty. A booming economy and foreign presence attracts terrorist activities targeting Westerners not to mention the exploitation that goes with it. The U.S. is there for counterterrorism missions and cannot compete economically with the Chinese. President Trump wants to decrease its budget for Africa (foreign aid, nation building) but would probably let the military chart its course there.
China on the other hand is filling in the vacuum that the U.S. is creating by expanding trade and militarization of the area. There will be no direct confrontation between these two superpowers in the near term but proxy wars in the region will accelerate with more involvement from these powers.