As stated by the mission statement, AFRICOM “United States Africa Command, in concert with interagency and international partners, builds defense capabilities, responds to crisis, and deters and defeats transnational threats in order to advance U.S. national interests and promote regional security, stability, and prosperity”. Since its formalization and full operation in 2008, AFRICOM has taken both soft power and military strategies in Africa. Its activities includes humanitarian aid and military training.
African countries have been suspicious of AFRICOM. The African leaders and citizens do not see the Command as a force of good in the continent: be it in the promotion of good governance, improved economic investment and even security. Rather the Command is viewed as a deliberate strategy by the US to subvert African sovereignty while protecting American interest through military incursion. Some have gone as far as calling AFRICOM the vehicle for a new American ‘imperialism’ in Africa. This perception is not without merit given that this was established at the height of the US activities in Iraq. And there has been a continuing erosion of the US aid and trade in Africa. Even though the US enjoys goodwill from African countries in general, it has a legacy of helping to prop dictators and dethroning governments that do not serve its interest. American government has also shown limited response to major crises (for example, Rwanda and DRC) and responding militarily where it needs a more constructive response. For examples, the US airstrikes in Somalia and the invasion of Libya. There was also no consultation with any African country or umbrella organization such as the African Union before establishing the AFRICOM. Perhaps, this explains why African countries were united in opposing the US initial plan to establish the Command headquarters in an African country. Furthermore, African countries with the exception of Kenya and Rwanda rejected defense pact with the Africom.
Over the years, the Command has attempted to expand its role and boost its non-military activities (soft power). Accordingly, it has promoted some programs such as the African Partnership Station that provides security assistance, training and humanitarian relief to African countries facing varying degrees of challenges in these areas. One of its noted humanitarian activities yet, is the role the Command played during the Ebola crisis in Liberia.
The major problem with the AFRICOM approach and the general US strategy in Africa is viewing the continent homogeneously as a terrorist and risk-infested region. Africa has its share of problems, but it is still not the most terrorist dominated region. Homegrown terrorism that directly impacts the US is more prevalent in the US, Western Europe and the Middle East. Moreover, the problem of the continent is not a military one, but mostly economics and political. Therefore, many observers have continued to view AFRICOM as yet another imperialistic military engagement. After the Niger incident in October 2017 that led to the death of four American soldiers, there seem to be reassessments by the Command. Most recently, the Command has made some efforts to boost its image and ultimately enhance its relations with African countries especially the regional powers – Nigeria and South Africa. The commander of the US Africa Command Marine Corps General Thomas D Waldhauser visited South Africa in March and noted on the need for deeper engagement in what he called a strategy of “by, with and through” partner nations on the continent. He also acknowledged that African challenges are not necessarily a military one. The Command’s strategy and activities will likely evolve over time to something that would hopefully become acceptable by most Africans. That is yet to be seen. In the meantime, it is important to ask if African leaders, citizens and interested parties’ suspicion of the Command are valid and in order? Is the AFRICOM the comprehensive American foreign policy in Africa or just a military presence?
There is need for an assessment of the Command’s mission, vision and activities. Accordingly, going by the vision and mission of the Command, which states – “ It responds to crisis, and deters and defeats transnational threats in order to advance U.S. national interests and promote regional security, stability, and prosperity”. On the US foreign policy, the Command suggests to carry the US foreign policy primarily through military-to-military activities of partnership with African countries at both regional and international level. As would be expected the AFRICOM is to protect the interest of the US and its citizens. However, it becomes a different story when that interest is directly in conflict with the interest of a country and more so a continent it is operating in. AFRICOM is not the first of its kind. Since the end of the WWII, the US has established military base around the globe including the UK, Germany, and Japan. AFRICOM is also the latest of other 10 similar military combatant commands in different regions - United States European Command (EUCOM), The United States Central Command (CENTCOM) etc. The persistent African opposition to the Command is mostly due to the lack of comprehensive concrete American economic policy on Africa.
While China economic relations and investments in Africa is rising, the US established AFRICOM. When focused on its primary role of military activities, AFRICOM is not seen in good light. Ten years after the establishment of the Command, the record merely confirms the negative perception that welcomes its inception. Its core goal of fostering regional security has produced an opposite effect. For example, the American led NATO bombing campaign of Libya that brutally killed Gaddafi was the most single biggest impact of AFRICOM till date. The destabilization of Libya without a concrete plan to build the country opened a door to mass influx of weapons, aimless mercenaries and rise of insurgencies in the Western Sahel of Africa. The result was civil war in Mali, a peaceful and relative stable country before then. There was also the enhanced military capacity of Boko Haram in Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger and Chad and destabilization and armed conflicts in Central African Republic. The response to the crisis was an increase US troop to Africa, - over 700 military missions across Africa: an increase of 300 percent since the launch of the AFRICOM. Despite the increased presence of American military through AFRICOM, there is yet to be any visible impact in terms of security or otherwise. So it is understandable that African leaders and citizens see the Command as a military incursion and military imperialism. This action of the Command merely confirms conspiracy theorists that claim it is on an imperialist mission in Africa.
Clearly, AFRICOM was never for the interest of Africa. As stated by the Command webpage, “United States Africa Command (USAFRICOM) advances American interests in Africa by deploying elements of U.S. national power in a persistent manner”. It is rather, a means to establish American military might and deter other countries that poses a threat especially China and Russia.
It is also wrong to view AFRICOM as a totality of American foreign policy on Africa. Rather, AFRICOM is an American military strategic outpost in Africa. The difference is that foreign policy is perceived as mutual engagement and relations with other region or country. AFRICOM does not represent such a relationship. There is yet to be a well articulated American foreign policy on Africa. Each American administration tends to formulate its own African policy. For example, there is no concrete structural US/Africa trade agreement. US trade with sub-Saharan Africa has been facilitated mainly through trade preference programs US Generalized System of Preferences (GSP). Perhaps, Africa as a region is not a priority in America's sphere of interest. The only country in Africa that American government recognizes as significant in its interest is Egypt, which is treated as part of Middle East rather than an African country. African leaders and citizens had a high hope of American positive engagement in Africa especially in area of development during the Obama administration. Ironically, it was during the Obama Presidency that American militarization of Africa was amply expanded, while its’ economic engagement was declining.
Perhaps, AFRICOM could be a force for good for both the US and African countries in which it operates on. There is a critical need for deeper partnership between African countries and the AFRICOM. The world is more complex and no country is insignificant more so a continent. There is a shift in the global political economy. Africa has little to lose in the sphere of this shift given that most countries in the continent are already at the bottom. However, it has a lot to gain as the global powers shift to equalization and possibly tip to another side. While, Africa should continue to be suspicious of the military engagement of any Command or countries including AFRICOM, it is also important for the continent to take control of its destiny and dictate the pace and substance of engagement with the other countries. The rise of China has shown, that countries gain respect at the international stage when they can manage their own political economy. AFRICOM is not a wholistic American foreign policy in Africa, rather it is a military agency established to protect American interest, but it can also do so in way that benefit African countries.
 See: https://www.iol.co.za/news/politics/africom-partners-with-african-countries-to-fight-extremism-13640542
See an article by Nick Turse detailing American military expansion in Africa. http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/176272/tomgram%3A_nick_turse%2C_the_u.s._military_moves_deeper_into_africa/