Resource Wars in Africa: AFRICOM and the Reach of US Corporations



As the US military establishes more bases across Africa, the US government continues to seek a home for AFRICOM, the future center of US military power on the continent. Meanwhile, multi-national corporations continue to plunder Africa’s natural resources, and play troubling roles in the region’s conflicts. The past has shown that the US military has helped these corporations reap incredible wealth.

AFRICOM is the acronym for the US military’s new command post it hopes to establish somewhere in Sub-Sahara Africa. Devoted solely to Africa, AFRICOM will seek to bolster regional security and upgrade humanitarian efforts, says the White House.

AFRICOM is set to be up and running somewhere on the continent no later than September 2008, as authorized by President Bush last spring. The problem is, no African nation has said yes to a US military base that may house hundreds of soldiers and staff. Now there is debate in the US Congress over whether AFRICOM should even touch African soil.

There is no question AFRICOM is dogged by controversy, partially because of past US military adventures on the continent that went tragically awry. What’s more, Africans believe the US is growing more interested in their natural resources, as are other nations, such as China.

In the United States, opposition to AFRICOM is growing. TransAfrica Forum, a Washington think-tank, has gone on the offensive, saying AFRICOM is another tool President Bush will use to push his "corporatist agenda" on Africa. Actor Danny Glover, TransAfrica Forum’s current chairman, said during a recent Democracy Now! radio interview, that AFRICOM will be used as "a threat, being a technique, a mechanism to keep people in line, to keep nations in line. So the very presence of that is a threat to democracy, sovereignty and independence on the continent itself."

There is a wide-spectrum of opinion on AFRICOM. "We’re not going there just for the oil because we’re not that evil. It’s just a stupid argument," says Thomas P.M. Barnett, a New York Times best-selling author and military expert who is a forecaster of future global conflicts. "We’re going so to create better governments, improve the people, create jobs, create stability."

In essence, the US has grand plans to set in motion "the great African renaissance," says Barnett, who traveled to Ethiopia and Kenya this past summer, visiting several newly established US military outposts.

The White House, however, is not saying much about their plans for AFRICOM to those who should be in the know, says a prominent member of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Many African leaders have stated publicly the US never consulted with them about AFRICOM. The same goes for black office-holders on Capital Hill, says Noelle LuSane, a spokesperson for Rep. Donald Payne, D-New Jersey, who chairs the House subcommittee on Africa. "There was no consultation with him about AFRICOM," says LuSane. When Rep. Payne read about its conception in a newspaper, "He was shocked."

The White House claims that AFRICOM is also a move against the rise of radical Islam over the continent. Islam is estimated to be largest religion on the continent with Christianity a close second. The TransAfrica Forum, however, doesn’t believe radical Islam is spreading rapidly across the continent.

"[Radical Islam] is not even proportionally the biggest problem on the continent," says Nicole Lee, the think-tank’s director.  Lee says AFRICOM’s presence alone will help US corporations to out-maneuver and intimidate other nations desperate for resources. Besides African oil, which now accounts for an estimated 19 percent of the US’s annual consumption, dozens of US-based multi-national companies have concessions with African governments involving diamonds, gold, copper, uranium and timber, to name a few.

But the rush for African mega-profits doesn’t lead to just natural resources.  Similar to what’s going on in Iraq, US-based "Private Military Corporations" or PMCs are gobbling up hundreds of millions, if not billions of US aide dollars and U.N. peace-keeping funds. Lee gave the example of DynCorp International, which is currently running the Liberian army, and has been doing so for two years.

As for the US army, there have been calls for it to provide air defense for civilians. What many don’t know is that millions have gone to DynCorp and Pacific Architects and Engineers (which is now run by defense-contractor giant Lockheed Martin) so they can train and provide military logistics for thousands of African Union peacekeepers, some just deployed to Darfur.

"Should they [PMCs] be over there executing foreign policy? We say ‘absolutely not’," said Lee. "US military contractors are not charged with protecting the people, they have to protect the bottom line."

Resource Wars

When many think of an enormous US military disaster on the continent, tragic images of crashing Black Hawk helicopters, and mutilated bodies in the streets of Mogadishu often come to mind.

But there is a group of independent journalists and researchers who say the US military was involved in another African nightmare in the 1990s that has gone largely unnoticed by the American mainstream media, and thus a majority of Americans.

Those familiar with the civil wars and invasions of the last decade that embroiled the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), convey a situation that turned into what many call a "free-for-all." It was a set of conflicts that would allow the DRC’s neighbor, Rwanda, along with its military, some Rwandan-supported militias, and a few multi-national mining corporations, to move into the mountainous regions of eastern DRC so they could extract gold, copper, uranium and other exotic metals, on the cheap as chaos erupted across the country.

According to investigative journalist Wayne Madsen, helping the Rwandan military and its militias to invade the DRC were US special forces, intelligence operatives, and Private Military Companies. The stated reason for the invasion was so Rwanda could counter the remnants of the Hutus, who had slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Tutsi’s in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide, and then escaped into eastern DRC. But independent journalists such as Madsen suggest the "Hutu" problem was actually a ruse.

In 2001, Madsen testified before the US Congress. This testimony shows how the US military has been knee-deep in some disturbing African activities. In 1996, stated Madsen, a Pentagon official told a House of Representatives subcommittee the US military was training the Rwandan military as it prepared to invade the DRC for the first time. In 1998, the Pentagon was forced to admit that a twenty man U.S. Army Rwanda Interagency Assessment Team (RIAT) was working in the Rwanda at the time of the second invasion of Congo, testified Madsen.

Madsen, citing French intelligence and Roman Catholic priests who were in eastern DRC during the first invasion, told Congress, "there was reason to believe" Rwandan troops massacred hundreds of Hutus and a small number of Hutu Catholic priests.

In addition to Madsen’s findings, investigators from Humans Right Watch discovered, in 1995, that the Pentagon had hired the Ronco Consulting Corporation to work in Rwanda. Ronco, a company known for clearing land mines from war zones, was funneling military equipment, explosives and armored vehicles to the Rwandan military, even though Rwanda was under a UN-imposed arms embargo.

During the first invasion of the DRC, besides going after Hutus guilty of taking part in the Rwandan genocide, Madsen said Rwanda wished to overthrow the DRC leader at the time, President Mobuto, who supported the Hutus, but apparently did not support Western mining efforts in his country.

"It is my observation that America’s early support for (Rwanda), had less to do with getting rid of the Mobutu regime than it did in opening up Congo’s vast mineral riches to North American based mining companies," Madsen testified.

The Rwandan invasions of the DRC have caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands. But in the midst of the killing, mining interests and other corporations, mostly from the West, made their own killing.

Corporate Interests Take Center Stage

In an eye-opening report titled, "The Panel of Experts on the Illegal Exploitation of Natural Resources and Other Forms of Wealth of DR Congo", the UN reveals how the Rwandan military and their militias made millions moving minerals and metals out of the DRC. During Rwanda’s second invasion of the DRC in late 1998, the UN, as did many independent journalists, discovered that Rwanda, once again, wasn’t after the "genocidaires" who committed the massacres of 1994.

Instead, their true intentions for the second invasion became quite clear – take over the coltan mines of the eastern DRC. Coltan is a key ingredient to meeting the West’s obsession with personal technology. Coltan is first refined into a heat-resistant bluish-gray powder called tantalum, which can hold a high-electrical charge. The tantalum goes into making capacitors, which in turn, are used to manufacture cell phones made by Nokia, Intel computer chips and Sony PlayStations. [See this video about Coltan mining.]

According to the UN and other sources, the Rwandan military and its militias used rape and torture as a weapon and forced locals and children to work in the mines as cheap labor.

"The Rwandans had one motive, right from the beginning: to seize Congo’s massive mineral wealth, to grab the coltan mine I am standing in now and thousands like it, and to sell it on to us, the waiting world, as we quickly flicked the channel away from the news of this war with our coltan-filled remote control," wrote Johann Hari, a British journalist.

In 2000, Rwanda reported producing 83 tons of coltan for the entire year. For the first few months of 2001, their production topped 120 tons – per month. The UN says the Rwandan army made US $250 million from selling the metallic ore coltan over these two years.

Most of the DRC coltan moved illegally by the Rwandans went first to foreign traders, who then distributed to the booming cell phone industry and Sony for the launch of their PlayStation 2. "In 1998, coltan was valued at $20 per pound. By the end of 2000, it was worth more than $200 per pound," wrote David Barouski, an African Affairs researcher and a political science student at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, for Z magazine. "Prices soared due to skyrocketing demand from the electronics, defense, and aerospace industries. From 1998-2001, the U.S. was the world’s top coltan importer."

Many corporations over the last several years rejected coltan that comes from anywhere in Central Africa. "But it may be a case of too little, too late. Much of the coltan illegally stolen from Congo is already in laptops, cell phones and electronics all over the world," wrote a UN official.

As we see here, the US military’s involvement in the region indirectly helped multi-national companies plunder minerals and metals. AFRICOM, and any US military presence, is likely to do more harm than good in a region where US and corporate policy often prioritizes profits over human rights.

John Lasker is a freelance journalist from Columbus, Ohio.