It’s absurd how little we know about what the United States is up to in Africa. Because people care about it more, there is a fair amount of scrutiny of US actions in the Middle East. But in Africa the Pentagon has been doing essentially whatever it wants, with very little scrutiny… for over 20 years now! With today’s video I attempt to use some recent reporting to pull the veil back a bit.
Video Transcript after the jump…
You guys know that US actions in Africa are an almost complete mystery right? Even back before the internet, when the US had more than three newspapers that did international reporting, it was hard to get news consumers to care much about what happened in Africa. Now almost all the information we get about Africa today is direct from the Pentagon.
There is also a lot of US propaganda related to the Middle East, but people there are a lot richer than they are in most of Africa, and they have more power and technology to get conflicting messages out. Also, the large scale presence of non-elite US soldiers drove and still drives real reporting on Middle Eastern conflicts. Media sources, like this one, have the data they need to construct a different narrative.
None of that is present in Africa. The US troops there are mostly special forces, which means that their presence can be covered up, completely legally. Even US congresspeople don’t have a clear idea of what they are up to. What we hear about the US War On Terror in Africa is almost exclusively what the US government wants to tell us. We get partial documentation of the money and weapons that are being sent. Every six months or so, for most of a decade now, the Economist or the Wall Street Journal will run a story saying that Jihadism is a big and growing problem in Africa. These stories are mostly based on what the Pentagon or a government aligned Washington DC think tank tells them is going on. For years now, I have been claiming on this channel that Jihadi terrorism is disappearing. My prediction has been confirmed, in every region except for Africa, supposedly. According to these articles, there’s a brand new Jihad breaking out in Africa. But these stories have been nearly identical, for almost a decade now. They include almost no on the ground reporting, and they always say the same thing. Also it’s not entirely clear to me that the insurgencies they are talking about are really the sort of Islamic terrorism the US or Europe has to worry about. The Wall Street Journal produced the platonic ideal of one of these articles in December. The Jihad in Africa articles often include blatant outright lies, that are easily detectable if you’ve paid any attention to this area over the years. This article has two lies in the headline.
The author of this piece almost certainly didn’t write this headline, because it’s contradicted by the article itself. The West has emphatically not “built a firewall” against Al Qaeda and Islamic State influence in Africa. The 15 years since the US military’s founding of Africa Command have created dramatically weaker North African countries, that are mostly losing their battles against insurgents.
Insurgency in the Sahel is a forest fire that the US military started by taking out Libya in 2011. It’s a forest fire that we have been adding fuel to ever since by backing illegitimate strong men. Here’s a clip from a couple years back, explaining what we did to the Sahel.
“Sahel means coast in many languages, and according to most sources, in this case it refers to the coast, not of a body of water, but of the Sahara desert. All of these countries have been absolutely devastated by the war in Libya.
It’s important to remember how rich Libya is. It’s bountiful resources, combined with its tiny population made it a sort of North African UAE. With vastly more land than the Emirates of course. Before 2011, Libya actually had a higher GDP per capita than poorer European Union countries like Romania and Bulgaria.
Muammar Gaddafi, the guy who ran Libya between 1969 and 2011 was a crazy person, but in his own very weird way he was committed to African freedom and Unity. Even if say 80% of his African diplomacy was about self promotion, he had so much money to play with that the other 20% had a tremendous positive impact. As one example, he was one of the main funders of the founding of the African Union.
Because Libya had so much spare money, it became central to the economies of not just Tunisia, but all of the countries of the Sahel as well. Money sent home from migrant work in Libya was a big part the economy of all Sahel countries. Less positively, Gaddafi also relied on soldiers from the Sahel to shore up his own power in Libya, creating groups of well paid and well armed actors. Gaddafi’s influence on politics in the Sahel, especially during the Cold war, could be manipulative and violent, but so was French and US influence. Libya provided an alternative. Love him or hate him Gaddafi was central to North African life for decades. Unfortunately NATO really hated him, and despite the fact that he had tried to make peace for years, we killed him in 2011.
BTW, I know I have mentioned this before, but the Obama administration’s excuse that we were saving the city of Benghazi seems especially hollow,because Benghazi ended up being subjected to a three year siege and debilitating bombing campaign between 2014 and 2017 anyway. The fact that it was former CIA operative Khalifa Haftar doing the crushing rather than Gaddafi doesn’t seem like much of an improvement.
The effects Of Gaddafi’s killing on the Sahel were both immediate, and long lasting. The financial network that had come to underpin the prosperity of much of North Africa disappeared. Gaddafi’s African soldiers dispersed back to their countries and took their weapons with them. Mali was the first to fall. Gaddafi was killed in October 2011, and by January 2012 Mali’s north was over-run by insurgents with Libyan weapons. The top half of what had been one of Africa’s more stable countries ended up being run by Jihadists for a year, as the country as a whole experienced a military coup. A French military intervention pushed the insurgents out of the cities, but French troops are still involved a decade later, and Mali suffered yet another coup last year. Mali may be the most politically damaged of the Sahel countries, but all of them have experienced the effects of Gaddafi’s fall. Insurgency has grown everywhere. We have seen multiple coups. And all these conflicts gave the French and US militaries the excuse to dig in even farther into the region, with effects that have been meaningless and wasteful when they haven’t been downright horrific”
So yeah, the US built an insurgency forest fire in the Sahel, not a firewall against it. Let’s leave aside for a second the question of whether the majority of these insurgents have a real connection to Al Qaeda or the Islamic State beyond branding. Nobody has ever shown that to my satisfaction. What is clear is that the governments that the US and France have been supporting have been losing, and losing badly.
As an aside, it’s honestly kind of shocking that a lot of this article is based on interviews with inevitable future secretary of State Victoria Nuland, who long time viewers will recall from her role helping to start wars in Ukraine for the Obama and Biden administrations. Leaving aside the very dark comedy of Nuland’s imperial omnipresence, she’s a Europe expert, not an Africa expert. The US government doesn’t even bother to invest in Africa specific propagandists. Too few journalists are asking real questions to make it worth spending the money.
The second lie in this Wall Street Journal headline is that there is anything new here. We have been hearing about the “New” battle against Jihad in Africa since 2015 at the latest. This Wall Street Journal article seems transparently timed to coincide with the White House’s reporting requirements. According to the 1973 War Powers Resolution every six months the President has to report all ongoing fighting to the US Congress. December’s report admits to a noteworthy spike in US troop levels in Niger, vaulting over 1,000 soldiers for the first time. A nearly 50% troop increase is something that people might wonder about, so the Wall Street Journal has put out this US government press release claiming that our war in Niger is both rational and somehow new.
Our war in Niger is neither rational nor new. It’s actually kind of weird that the White House even bothers to report detailed troop levels for an African country. As this paragraph from the White House’s December letter indicates, Presidents usually think it’s enough to vaguely mention that we have a presence in an African country. It’s only the troop levels in Niger that get a specific head count. This is the result of an old scandal. Some years back, four US troops died in combat in Niger, and most Congress people were embarrassed to admit they had no idea we were there. Those four troops died in 2017. US media and government have been putting out the same information about these countries and their insurgencies for almost a solid decade now, claiming it’s a new development, and honestly very few people have even noticed.
Every couple years, somebody will pick up on the fact that US trained and funded militaries are destabilizing the region, publish an article, and then never follow up on the implications. It’s just too expensive to pay for reporting in Africa. It is well documented that there are some Jihadist militias, like Boko Haram, that do truly evil things, so everybody assumes the US military efforts in the region must be worthwhile, and moves on. We know very little about what happens in these countries, other than what the US government tells us, and it’s been that way for a decade.
And then this fall something very strange happened. The New York Times sent Roger Cohen, a highly experienced, highly placed journalist to a single African country for two and a half weeks. And what’s more, he was specifically tasked to investigate how outside influence interacts with a Sahel country and its interminable wars. His scathing report came out on December 24th, and you should all read it.
So what Sahel country do you think the New York Times finally decided to devote some real resources to? Was it Nigeria, with 211 million people, a globally important petroleum industry, and the most telegenically horrible Islamist insurgency? Nope. Well then, was it Niger, with 27 million people, growing importance in US and French military plans and over 1,000 US troops? Nope. It was the Central African Republic, home to a mere 6 million people. You see the thing is that, unlike almost every other country in Africa, the main outside player in this underpopulated country isn’t France or the United States, it’s Russia. So we can finally get some real adversarial Africa reporting from the New York Times.
The article does go overboard a bit on the Russia paranoia, as one would expect. Cohen sort of implies that Russia made human rights violations a bigger thing in the country, but I don’t buy it. Back in 2015, long before the Wagner mercenaries and other Russians came on the scene, The Central African Republic famously reacted to a non-Jihadist, moderately Islamic insurgency by burning down every mosque in the country. Russia didn’t spoil some sort of human rights paradise.
But standard Putin Panic aside, this is a really useful article. The corruption, over-militarization and failure that the Russians are bringing to the CAR is different in some ways, but is also very similar to the havoc the US and France have been bringing to the region on a much larger scale for over a decade now.
Almost all the critiques the Times applies to Russia apply to the US and France as well. The article begins with the legitimately outrageous fact that Russian diplomats are pressuring the CAR’s supreme court to extend the president’s time in power indefinitely. This is imperialist, illegal, and atrocious. But if you look north to Chad, France maintained President Idriss Deby in power there for three solid decades. When he was killed in 2021, on a battle front largely created by the Libyan war that France did the most to advocate for in 2011, France supported installing Deby’s son in power. This required throwing out Chad’s constitution, and France supported that disposal entirely. Imperialist, illegal, and atrocious. Just like Russia, but in a country with three times more people.
The NYT article features a great quote from US secretary of State Anthony Blinken on how pernicious Russian influence is. “They threaten stability, they undermine good governance, they rob countries of mineral wealth, they violate human rights,”
Blinken is exactly right about Russia’s crimes in Africa. The problem is that all of these criticisms apply just as heavily to France and the United States. What makes NATO’s influence different from Russia’s is that it isn’t applied to the 6 million people of the Central African Republic, it’s applied to hundreds of millions of people across Africa’s poorest region.
Even the NYT reporter’s grudging admiration of the Russian presence in the country has its echoes in earlier NATO “successes”. Through the application of money, superior firepower, and brutality Russia has temporarily managed to impose a level of peace on the Central African Republic that it hasn’t experienced since 2012. The New York Times seems impressed, but it shouldn’t be. This is exactly how France entered Mali back in 2013, rolling back an insurgency to the applause of the Malian government and people. And 9 years later, in August of 2022, the French left in disgrace, leaving behind a Malian government that had experienced two coups in 18 months, and is again losing control of the country.
A hyper-militarized approach to the Sahel’s problems has been failing for 12 years now, and it will continue to do so. In 2021 it got so bad that the UN secretary General felt the need to lament the “epidemic of coups” in this African region, reaching levels we haven’t seen since the cold war. Outside militaries know how to temporarily win conflicts, not set up functioning governments. The first step towards success in these countries is to pull all the foreign militaries out. The strong men the outside militaries choose to support inevitably provoke new insurgencies.
Russia’s presence in the Central African Republic is a menace and it needs to end. But the French and US military presence in the rest of the region is also a menace and also needs to end.
I believe that the militarized lack of information we get is concealing another issue. What these countries are experiencing are probably not Counter-terrorism wars. What I suspect they are are wars of national consolidation.
Creating a nation is almost always a violent business. The French Revolution is probably the most famous example. We all know about the terror in Paris, and the few thousand aristocrats and others who lost their lives to the Guillotine. What is less publicized is the estimated 200,000 people that revolutionary governments massacred between 1793 and 1796, in just a single region of the country. The Vendee was an uprising of a region with its own power centers, its own religious preferences, and its own designs on the countries resources and priorities. It was mercilessly crushed in the name of establishing a more unified and powerful French republic.
It’s hard not to see the echoes of this in the supposed counter terror wars of Africa’s Sahel region in recent decades. Absolutely, religion is a factor, as it was for the Catholic peasants rebelling against the French revolution. But more than that, I suspect these insurgencies are about ethnicity, language, and resentment against the elites who govern from capital cities who are in many cases consolidating their power over these distant provinces for the first time. Picking and empowering elites to commit nation founding horrors is not a game that the United States should be playing. No outside power should be doing this. The perniciousness of outside meddling was actually a big part of the horror of the Vendee. Without the war France was fighting against it’s neighbors at the time, the Vendee wouldn’t have been anywhere near as bad.
All modern nations have crimes like the Vendee in their founding. It takes a deeper thinker than myself to say whether or not they are necessary. But if the US is doing no good in these countries, as has been clearly demonstrated for a decade, what’s the point of associating ourselves with these often horrific wars? And make no mistake, if we pick, train, arm, and support the strong men, we are complicit. We need to get out.
Boom But but what about Rwanda, you may be asking. For almost three decades now, interventionists especially those who want to intervene in Africa have been telling themselves that the Rwanda Genocide happened because the US wasn’t there. Doesn’t the US military presence make genocide less likely. Well, as I laid out at length a couple years back, the standard story of Rwanda leaves a lot out. I hope you don’t mind, but I am just going to repeat my full five minute clip on what happened there, because I think it’s pretty comprehensive and very, very relevant to this topic.
“I have been meaning to talk about Rwanda for a while. The standard version of the story is laid out in Samantha Power’s problem from hell, an account I read to prepare for this video. Power’s chapter on Rwanda movingly tells the story of the horrific 1994 genocide in which Rwanda’s Hutu majority murded an estimated 800,000 Tutsi people. Samantha Power’s tremendously influential take is that this horrific crime could have been stopped if only some wealthy more militarily capable outsider had gotten involved. That’s the standard story that Stavridis probably believes too. The problem is that this account leaves out the fact that if it wasn’t for actions taken by the French government, the Genocide would have been much smaller, or it might not have happened at all. Rwanda’s genocide was made immeasurably worse by intervention from the rich world, not by the lack of it.
This is probably not something you have heard before, so I think it makes sense to back up my sources. Power’s chapter on Rwanda is 60 pages long, and it barely mentions France, it’s mostly about the US government not responding, and the PTSD of the Canadian general on the ground. British journalist Martin Meredith’s chapter is only 39 pages long, but it provides infinitely more context about what actually happened in Rwanda. Pl
Meredith’s fate of Africa documents how France armed and propped up the genocidal government for years leading up to 1994, helping it fend off an invasion of Tutsi rebels. The Rwandan government’s soon to be genocidal apparatus was largely created and funded by the French.
“WIth French Assistance, Habyarimana set in motion a huge expansion of Rwanda’s armed forces. From the time of the invasion, the army grew from a force of 9,000 men in October 1990 to 28,000 in 1991. France provided training staff, counter-insurgency experts and huge quantities of weapons. It financed, armed and trained a Presidential Guard, an elite force recruited exclusively from Habyarimana’s home district. It also facilitated arms contracts with Egypt and South Africa. An estimated $100 million was spent on arms supplies, a vast sum for a tiny, impoverished country. Much of the Money cam from international funds – quick disbursing loans under a Structural adjustment Programme – intended for economic development”
Now of course the French didn’t intend for a genocide to happen. Just like the Obama administration, featuring Samantha Power didn’t intend to steal a decade of economic development from Northern Africa by destroying Libya in 2011. The lack of bad intentions here doesn’t make these sorts of things excusable. After the Genocide started the French did intervene, and they may have stopped the slaughter in a few places, but the main effect was to fight Tutsi forces and help their clients, the Hutu genocidaires, escape to the Congo, where Rwandan spill over helped tip that unhappy country over into a war that killed something like 6 million people. That’s what enlightened foreign military intervention most often does, it turns crimes against Humanity into holocausts.
Not so fast, Rob, you may be saying. You have a she said, he said situation here. Samantha Power is a widely respected US stateswoman, now the head of the foreign aid agency in the Biden administration. Who is this Martin Meredith character? Some curmudgeonly British journalist? Maybe he’s making stuff up because he hates France or something? Well, in 2021, Meredith’s version of the facts was largely confirmed… by the French government.
This is the second French government inquiry into its role in Rwanda. In 1998, four years after the Genocide, a French Parliamentary investigation found that French behavior in Rwanda had been exemplary or even heroic. But 27 years have passed now. Francois Mitterrand, the French President in 1994, has been dead for a quarter century. The Presidential report released this year confirms the grim version of events laid out by that British journalist. While it’s careful to point out that France didn’t want a genocide, it concedes France’s “heavy and damning responsibilities”.
So yeah, please stop using the Rwanda Genocide as an argument for rich world military intervention. Because what the Rwandan Genocide really is, is the most compelling argument imaginable against the virtues of rich world intervention.”
For years now, I have feared that the lack of scrutiny of US actions in Africa has been hiding Rwanda or French Revolution style crimes. My suspicion fwas that we weren’t really fighting Islamic terrorists, we were fighting the peoples of these various countries, and the Jihadist insurgencies were just an aftereffect. But I never had proof, so I couldn’t run with it. Well, I am making this video because over the past month, I have had my fears confirmed by some truly horrifying reporting from Reuters.
In 2015 the crimes of Boko Haram, a Northern Nigerian insurgency became international news. Specifically their mass kidnappings of young women. The international cry of bring back our girls led to an outpouring of US military support. All the massive human rights concerns about the Nigerian military were shoved aside. This was of course helped by the fact that unlike most countries in the Sahel, the Nigerian oil industry means that US defense contractors can get rich off selling stuff to Nigeria.
The US State Department has published a selected list of some of these interactions. We have contributed tens of millions of dollars to the training of Nigeria’s military. And we have sold them billions of dollars worth of equipment. Among the items we have provided are attack helicopters, armored personnel carriers and a couple of 400 foot coast guard ships that we apparently just donated to them.
It’s important to remember that all of this equipment isn’t just being used to fight Boko Haram. There are multiple other insurgencies in the country, fostered along ethnic and economic lines as well as religious ones. I don’t know, Maybe Nigeria needs to have some of these fights to establish the country. But I am pretty damn sure that US tax payers should not be arming up the military to make these fights more violent.
And it’s now horrifyingly clear that that is exactly what US support is doing. It’s not ending any of these conflicts, it’s making them more horrific. The December Reuters reports document a systematic program of forced abortions for women recovered from insurgents. It also documents a program of mass slaughter of children who might be associated with insurgents. Reuters documents the murders of 60 children in depth, but believes that the Nigerian military has slaughtered thousands of children. To be clear here, these aren’t preteen child soldiers who tragically died fighting, no these are children ripped out of their mothers arms and murdered in front of them. Piles of dead kids, paid for by the United States. These Reuters reports are really harrowing stuff.
Now I would be very surprised if US troops were involved directly in any of these crimes. But I think it’s very likely that US intelligence helped these child murder squads draw up their lists of villages to target. And it’s clearly documented that the United States government provides heavy financial support and significant surplus equipment to the Nigerian military, sometimes paid for, and sometimes more or less for free.
It’s now clear to me that what the US government and their stenographers at the Wall Street Journal and the economist are doing with all their Jihad in Africa talk is providing a flimsy justification to profit off of more fundamental and deep seated sorts of conflicts. These horrifying reports from Nigeria are probably just the tip of the iceberg.
Even worse, our military first approach to these conflicts is probably making these conflicts worse. These African militaries are a lot less likely to negotiate if the US keeps handing them free ships and vehicles. Nobody really knows what the US is doing in Africa. But we do know enough to know that we should not be there.