U.S. Africa Command sparks skepticism

U.S. President George W. Bush speaks about Africa at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art February 14, 2008 in Wasghington, DC. Bush will be traveling to Africa starting February 15.

TEXT OF STORY

KAI RYSSDAL: President Bush leaves for Africa later this afternoon. Six days, five countries. The White House says the trip will highlight heath care initiatives, economic opportunity and human rights. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice will spin off on Monday for a stop in Kenya to talk about the violence there. There is another item on the president's agenda. He's trying to drum up support for a new U.S. military command based on the continent. But Gretchen Wilson reports it's proving to be a tough sell.


GRETCHEN WILSON: President Bush made a speech yesterday saying "Africa in the 21st century is a continent of potential."

PRESIDENT BUSH: Africa's also increasingly vital to our strategic interests.

A year ago, Bush centralized the US military's African operations, including peacekeeping and anti-terrorism training. The new headquarters is called U.S. Africa Command, or AFRICOM. Col. Pat Mackin says AFRICOM coordinates the training of local security forces in maritime and border security.

COL. PAT MACKIN: Things like oil theft and piracy and illegal fishing. If these African governments can get a handle on being able to protect their waters or their natural resources, then they're able to bring those resources to market.

But here in Africa, many worry it's American economic interests that are really at stake. The U.S. is expected to get 25 percent of its oil from Africa in the next decade. Deane-Peter Baker is the editor of African Security Review.

DEAN-PETER BAKER: The timing of AFRICOM has made a lot of people suspicious that this is also part of a U.S. interest in trying to get control of particularly oil resources in Africa.

Other external players -- including China and India - are positioning for access for Africa's resources. Adam Habib is a political scientist with the University of Johannesburg. He says African leaders worry AFRICOM will enforce Washington's policies rather than promote Africa's best interests.

ADAM HABIB: And the big concern of the African continent -- and it's particularly my concern frankly -- is that the last time we had a scramble on the African continent in the Cold War, between the US and the Soviet Union, really Africa lost out.

African resistance to the military headquarters is so great that only the small nation of Liberia has publicly offered to host it. Liberia is one of the stops on this trip. The White House says AFRICOM will be on the agenda during Bush's visit, but no major announcements are expected.

AFRICOM says it won't infringe on the sovereignty of other nations.

Officials say the headquarters will be fully up and running by October. But for now, it'll operate from its current base… in Stuttgart, Germany.

In Johannesburg, I'm Gretchen Wilson for Marketplace.

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