OPINION: Competing and winning in Africa, a vast theater of opportunity
By Col. Chris Karns
Africa is a vast area where massive opportunity exists. It is a place of robust resources, rare minerals, reserves of oil and the potential for huge gains. Its potential impact can be great and return on investment even greater. With the right resources and development, it can lead to more secure futures, but may be overlooked due to competing investment priorities.
The opportunity exists, not just for the U.S., but for near peer competitors as well. China is investing considerably in Africa and possesses great market share.
Maximizing this opportunity requires consistent engagement, especially during times of fluctuation, challenge and change.
A little bit of investment goes a long way in Africa. U.S. investment and its small U.S. defense footprint is making a difference in Africa, but the field is changing and competition is fierce.
By 2050 the population on the continent will double from 1.1 billion to upwards of 2.5 billion people. Roughly one in four people in the world will be living in Africa. This represents an incredible potential future market. But while the robust African continent is a land of great heritage and rich in history, there are African countries requiring basic safety and security to unleash this vast potential. All types of assistance are desired and accepted where offered, and China has moved in. Literally.
One million-plus Chinese citizens live on the continent. China’s strategic patience, intention to compete and courtship of African countries has been ongoing for years. China hosts the second highest number of African university students in the world.
They have invested heavily in African infrastructure. Since 2012, they have tripled loans to African countries, while extracting critical minerals in 45 African countries. They are seizing and wrestling control of the narrative via investment in media and training African journalists.
China’s influence and activity in Africa is increasing daily but, many African countries still prefer the U.S. as their partner of choice. There is a strong demand for, and value in, what the U.S. delivers, but it requires consistent engagement.
Teaming with the Department of State and U.S. Agency for International Development, U.S. Africa Command’s consistent acts, with a relatively small group of folks, are bringing big benefits and making a difference in generating increased security and development for Africa and opportunity for the United States. Threats and opportunities rarely stand still. This is especially true in Africa. Our ability and willingness to provide security assistance and training is viewed as a competitive advantage and can help the U.S. maintain preferred-partner status.
Less than 10 weeks ago, Gen. Stephen Townsend, the U.S. Africa Command commander, arrived at U.S. Africa Command. Since then, he blazed a path across the African continent, visiting the Republic of Djibouti, Somalia, Morocco, Tunisia, Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. He met with African presidents and senior military officials. He forged connections with senior leaders and laid eyes on, and a reassuring hand on the shoulders of, African partners in the trenches.
When he addressed Tunisian security forces, he remarked on the importance of their mission, their bravery and the critical nature of their work countering transnational threats.
The engagements created instant connections. They provided the U.S. valued African partner perspectives to problem sets and opportunities. The commander’s trips signaled a priority on building relationships in Africa and a sense of urgency in doing so. Strength and credibility of words were supported by additional visible action.
Even as he was on the continent speaking and keenly listening to African leaders in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger, Gen. Townsend received updates and continued scanning Libya, seeing and coordinating opportunity to counter ISIS in Libya activity.
Africa is massive, with lots of ungoverned space. The Islamic State terror network has a much greater focus on Africa and its African branches today. This represents an area of concern as they seek to demonstrate that they have global reach. It is a threat that is being countered.
Less than 24 hours after Townsend’s West Africa trip, U.S. Africa Command conducted the first U.S. Africa Command airstrike of the year in Libya. The visible action prevented opportunity for ISIS-L to reconstitute, denying them space to use the conflict in Libya as oxygen for their recruiting efforts or to maneuver.
Within a span of days, the al-Shabab terror organization, with intent to do harm to Americans and Somalis, conducted ill-advised attacks on Baledogle airfield, which resulted in the death of their fighters. The impact of these strikes helped counter transnational terrorist and criminal organizations where they stand.
These actions benefit long-term African, U.S. and European security. Left unchecked, these terror groups certainly seek to plot attacks and do harm to U.S. interests. They represent security threats requiring attention, so we must continue to pay attention and support our partners as they take the fight to the extremists.
While China is the number two exporter of military arms to Africa, trailing only Russia, they aren’t doing much to help counter groups seeking to rob Africans of their future.
Creating connections through engagement signals investment in Africa’s future. U.S. Africa Command acts and security assistance can and do advance partnerships while taking away violent extremist group influence. In an environment where terrorist and violent extremist threats exist, U.S. military training and equipment are in high demand by African partners. The existing investment is tremendously valued. This message is consistently delivered by African leaders.
The high quality of American engagement in the form of training and equipment cannot be manufactured or replicated by China. However, China eagerly makes “no strings attached” goods and services available wherever opportunity affords and bidding for their services exists. It does exist, and their influence on the continent is growing.
China has a military base in Djibouti and port projects in 22 African countries. Activity by China on the continent is certainly robust and is proving to be an economic source of strength for them. The various U.S. national security strategies direct a focus on global powers, like China, and strategic competition. Africa is a front in which China has chosen to compete and go all in.
Each tomorrow brings opportunity to build partnerships and win or lose influence in Africa. China is playing to win in this arena. Russia is also strongly competing. U.S. Africa Command engagement and partnerships of today matter to the opportunities of tomorrow. And yes, Africa certainly matters. It is important and a vast theater of opportunity.
Col. Chris Karns is director of AFRICOM Public Affairs. Opinions expressed in commentaries do not necessarily reflect the views of Military Times or its staff.