By Taisa Tshuma
ON April 25, the United States government announced that the US Africa Command (Africom) will open an Office of Security Co-operation at its Embassy in Zambia.
Brigadier-General Peter Bailey, deputy director for Strategy, Engagement and Programmes, made the announcement in Zambia during a meeting with President Hakainde Hichilema.
This announcement was met with a flurry of both cautionary and outright condemnation statements from political commentators both within Zambia and the region.
The New Heritage Party in Zambia questioned why a non-aligned country would accommodate Africom. They called for wider consultations.
What is Africom?
The US Africa Command or Africom is one of the 11 unified combatant commands of the US Department of Defence, headquartered at Kelley Barracks, Stuttgart, Germany. It is responsible for US military operations, including fighting regional conflicts and maintaining military relations with 53 African nations.
When the Pentagon sought to locate its newly-formed Africom somewhere in Africa in 2007, Botswana and Liberia were reportedly eager to host it.
But then former 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.
Despite this, Africom has a physical presence in Africa, probably second only to the French military. The countries with foreign military bases in Africa are the United States, France, Japan, Belgium, Italy, Turkey, China, India, United Arab Emirates, Russia, UK, Germany and Saudi Arabia.
Globally, the US controls about 750 bases in at least 80 countries and spends more on its military than the next 10 countries combined. Trying to resist foreign military footprint in the world is a futile exercise.
Until recently when insurgency erupted in Cabo Delgado, Mozambique, Southern Africa was relatively peaceful. The nearest conflict hotspot was the Democratic Republic of Congo with some sporadic fighting from time to time in what has been described as the mineral wealth curse.
Zambia is a neighbour to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Another neighbour to the south is Zimbabwe with a well-documented history of anti-US sentiment and rhetoric by ruling party spin doctors and sympathisers.
This is largely thanks to former president Robert Mugabe, who had a fall-out with the West at the turn of the century following the fast-track land reform programme.
The rhetoric and insults shaped the ideology and rise of the woke pan-African that will resist and rubbish any and every thing American.
As can be expected, this woke group has been very vocal already, calling the Zambia president all sorts of derogatory terms.
The outrage against Hichilema is premised on the view that America has an imperialist agenda, unjustly punishing Zimbabwe, with the Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act of 2001 (Zidera), for dispossessing white farmers of land.
The subsequent Executive Order 13288 of 2003 which proclaimed targeted sanctions is another source of discontentment.
The US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (Ofac) implements the targeted sanctions policy.
Zidera restricts the United States from voting in support of new assistance to Zimbabwe from international financial institutions.
Another root of contempt is the reputation of the US military, largely seen as a bully. The US is seen as the instigator of many wars around the world, including the recent one in Ukraine, rather than a peacemaker.
There are fears that with increased proximity, the American military will destabilise the Sadc region.
There is also raw emotion emanating from solidarity with regimes that have been on the receiving end of American military might and power, many of whom supported the liberation struggle in Zimbabwe.
It is worth noting that after the Rhodesia Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) in 1965, the US recalled its Consul-General from Salisbury (now Harare), closed the US Information Service (USIS) library, and withdrew its US Agency for International Development (USAid) and trade promotion officials.
By March 1977, the US once again enforced all sanctions on Rhodesia and supported the UN and UK consistently in their efforts to influence Rhodesian authorities to accept the principles of majority rule.
The US supported Lancaster House talks in 1979, and extended official diplomatic recognition to the new government immediately after independence.
At the Zimbabwe conference on reconstruction and development (Zimcord) in 1981, the US pledged US$225 million over a three-year period towards the Government of Zimbabwe’s goals of post-war reconstruction, redistribution and development of land, and the development of skilled manpower.
By 1986, the US had contributed US$380 million the majority in grants, with some loans and loan guarantees. From 1985, the dollar had an average inflation rate of 2,72% per year, producing a cumulative price increase of 162,32%, meaning US$380 million in 1986 is about US$1 billion in value today.
Despite strained relations, the US continues as a leading provider of humanitarian assistance to Zimbabwe, providing about US$400 million worth from 2002 to 2007, most of it being food aid.
Outside the differences between Mugabe and the West, Zimbabwe and the US are quite similar in ideological aspirations and language, both being former British colonies.
The Zimbabwe government has preferred to use the US dollar over the South African rand as a substitute currency for the failed Zimbabwe dollar, despite moaning about US imposed economic sanctions.
In 2009, then prime minister in the power-sharing government of Zimbabwe, Morgan Tsvangirai met US president Barack Obama and was told that the US would only remove the economic restrictions on Zimbabwe if the political crisis was resolved.
Over 12 years later, after annual reviews, the sanctions are still in place.
On the recent Zambian stance there is also an element of ignorance among the critics.
Firstly, what has been announced in Zambia does not heighten the ability of the US military to carry out operations that they may deem necessary in Zimbabwe or DRC, any more than before.
Secondly, establishing such an office at the embassy in Lusaka is an opportunity to let diplomacy lead any engagement instead of leaving it to the whims of a remote office located in Germany.
Whether housed in Africa or not, the super powers will make decisions on Africa from wherever. Is it not better if decisions and recommendations to their central governments are made by people who live and work among the citizens of Africa?
A force the size of America does not necessarily need to set up shop in the neighbourhood to militarily neutralise Zimbabwe. They can do it even from a warship in the Indian Ocean.
Zimbabwe is not in any more danger from the US military now that they have set up an office in Lusaka than it was five years ago.
Perhaps this actually is an opportunity to mend relations between Zimbabwe and America with Zambia being a better bridge for Zimbabwe than Germany can ever be.
This is an opportunity for Zambia and Zimbabwe to show that they are very united. The message from Zimbabwe and Africa to the US should be simple: “Cosying up to one of us, means thawing relations with everyone in the region.”
Southern Africa must use such occasions to demonstrate that they are a united force or else stop wasting time and money on the African Union and Sadc summits and solidarity statements.
Zambia was at the forefront of liberating Southern Africa from colonial rule and they have the scars to show for it. It will be very naive of the US and anyone to think that Zambia is being used as a launch-pad to recolonise the region.
Just like in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, Zambia acted in the best interests of Africa, it remains best suited to lead the way in Africa’s next chapter on international relations.
Hichilema is not a “wax behind the ear” politician, having run for office five times previously, and then finally winning in 2021, he has graduated into the job and must know exactly the impact of each decision he makes.
The odds of Africa being militarily colonised again, especially by a Western power are next to zero, particularly, because there is a realisation and acknowledgement that the whole thing was barbaric, inhumane and unacceptable.
The bigger threats to Africa right now are economic leveraging, debt traps with unfair natural resources extraction contracts and diplomatic manipulations, not military.
Zimbabweans, who are still traumatised by the country’s many conflicts from Western imperialism to Gukurahundi must exorcise these demons and not fret at the mention of America or Zanu PF. This can only be done when victims and perpetrators get closer.
The younger generations will relate and intermarry, thereby, forever banish the dark memories. Moving on after a conflict whether at a personal or national level is the best thing to do. It is the only way to escape the trappings of bitterness.
The Government of Zimbabwe has adopted a policy of engagement and re-engagement. A friend to all and enemy to none! This is an excellent policy. Only good things can come out of deliberate peace building.
Africa’s military needs to be capacitated and trained to deal with modern-day challenges. Zambia has embarked on that journey and the US is a willing partner. It will be more beneficial for Zimbabwe to move on, past the confrontational stage with the West and cultivate new co-operation linkages, especially with the US.
Tshuma is an entrepreneur and social commentator from Bulawayo, a former retail banking professional.
- Follow Taisa on Twitter @TaisaPT