Vol. XIX, Issue 4 (Fall 2012): 'Adwa, Ethiopia as a World Heritage Site', 'The Top Ten African Films in 2011', 'Building a Historiography of African Women in Cinema', 'U.S. Foreign Policy and Africa: The Obama Era'
Olayemi Akinwumi (South Africa)
For more information on AfricaUpdate
Professor Ayele Bekerie of Mekelle University, Ethiopia, argues thatAdwa, Ethiopia, the site associated with the historic battle fought between the invading Italian forces and Ethiopian troops should be adopted as a World Heritage Site.We are informed of some of the existing gaps in the World Heritage system in the course of the article. Two of the articles in this issue focus on African Cinema. One of the prominent scholars in the field, Beti Ellerson, reflects on some of the recent organizational activities spearheaded by women. She also informs us of an expanding list of African female cinematographers and filmmakers between 2000 and 2011. Basia L. Cummings briefly focuses on some of the top productions by both males and females in 2011. We conclude with an illuminating piece by Nick Turse on aspects of U.S Foreign Policy towards Africa during the current Obama administration. We are hoping to have a critique of Turse’s article in the Winter Issue of Africa Update.
Professor Gloria Emeagwali
Ethiopia as a World Heritage Site'
Ethiopia was brought to the world’s attention in 1896 when an African country defeated Italy, a modern European country, at the battle of Adwa. The 116th Year anniversary of the victory was celebrated on March 1st in Ethiopia. This year I was fortunate enough to celebrate the victory in Adwa by attending the fifth annual conference on the history and meaning of the Battle of Adwa. The event was also celebrated throughout the world. Adwa stands for human dignity, freedom and independence. As such its significance is universal and its story should be told repeatedly. Its narrative ought to be embraced by young and old, men and women. The battleground at Adwa should be listed as a World Heritage.
To Teshale Tibebu, “the Battle of Adwa was the largest battle between European imperialism and African resistance.” According to Donald Levine, “the Battle of Adwa qualifies as a historic event which represented the first time since the beginning of European imperial expansion that a non - white nation had defeated a European power.” The historic event brought or signaled the beginning of the end of the colonial world order, and a movement to an anti-colonial world order.
It was a victory of an African army in the true sense of the word. The Battle was planned and executed by African generals and intelligence officers led by Emperor Menelik II, who was born, brought up, and educated in Ethiopia. It was a brilliant and indigenous strategy that put a check to the colonial aims and objectives, which were originally conceived and agreed upon at the Berlin Conference of 1885. European strategy to carve Africa into external and exclusive spheres of influence was halted by Emperor Menelik II and Empress Taitu Betul at the Battle of Adwa. The Europeans had no choice but to recognize this African (not European) power.
Universality of the Victory at the Battle of Adwa
The African world celebrated and embraced this historic victory. In the preface to the book An Introduction to African Civilizations With Main Currents in Ethiopian History, Huggins and Jackson write: “In Ethiopia, the military genius of Menelik II was in the best tradition of Piankhi, the great ruler of ancient Egypt and Nubia or ancient Ethiopia, who drove out the Italians in 1896 and maintained the liberties of that ancient free empire of Black men.” Huggins and Jackson analyzed the victory not only in terms of its significance to the postcolonial African world, but also in terms of its linkage to the tradition of ancient African glories and victories.
Emperor Menelik II used his “magic wand” to draw all, the diverse and voluntary patriots from virtually the entire parts of the country, into a battlefield called Adwa. And in less than six hours, the enemy was decisively defeated. The overconfident and never to be defeated European army fell under the great military strategy of an African army. The strategy was what the Ethiopians call afena, an Ethiopian version of blitzkrieg that encircles the enemy and cuts its head. Italians failed to match the British and the French in establishing a colonial empire in Africa. In fact, by their humiliating defeat, the Italians made the British and the French colonizers jittery. The colonial subjects became re - energized to resist the colonial empire builders.
Adwa and Ethiopia’s Nationhood
Adwa irreversibly broadened the true boundaries of Ethiopia and Ethiopians. People of the south and the north, the east and the west, fought and defeated the Italian army. In the process, a new Ethiopia was born.
Adwa shows what can be achieved when united forces work for a common goal. Adwa brought the best out of many forces that were accustomed to waging battles against each other. Forces of destruction and division ceased their endless squabbles and redirect their united campaign against the common enemy. They chose to redefine themselves as one and unequivocally expressed their rejection of colonialism. They came together in search of freedom or the preservation and expansion of the freedom at hand. In other words, Adwa offers the most dramatic instance of trans-ethnic cooperation.
Emperor Menelik II could have kept the momentum by reforming his government and by allowing the many forces to continue participating in the making of a modern and good for all state. Emperor Menelik II, however, chose to return back to the status quo, a status of exploitative relationship between the few who controlled the land and the vast majority of the agrarian farmers. It took another almost eighty years to dismantle the yoke of feudalism from the backs of the vast majority of the Ethiopian farmers.
As far as Emperor Menelik’s challenge to and reversal of colonialism in Ethiopia is concerned, his accomplishment was historic and an indisputable fact. It is precisely this brilliant and decisive victory against the European colonial army that has inspired the colonized and the oppressed throughout the world to forge ahead and fight against their colonial masters.
Menelik’s rapprochement, on the other hand, with the three colonial powers in the region may have saved his monarchial power, but the policy ended up hurting the whole region. The seeds of division sown by the colonizers, in part, continue to wreck the region apart.
Realizing the need to completely remove all the colonizers as an effective and lasting way to bring peace and prosperity in the region, the grandson of the Emperor, Lij Iyassu attempted to carve an anti-colonial policy. He began to send arms to freedom fighters in Eritrea, Djibouti, and Somalia. He entered into a treaty of peace and cooperation with the Austrians, the Germans and the Turks against the British, Italians and the French. Unfortunately, the rule of Lij Iyassu was short-lived. The tri-partite powers colluded with the then Tafari Makonnen to successfully remove him from power.
Adwa symbolizes the aspirations and hopes of all oppressed people. Adwa catapulted Pan-Africanism into the realm of the possible by re - igniting the imaginations of Africans in their quest for freedom throughout the world. Adwa foreshadowed the outcome of the anti-colonial struggle in Africa and elsewhere. Adwa is about cultural resistance; it is about reaffirmation of African ways. Adwa was possible not simply because of brilliant and courageous leadership, but also because of the people’s willingness to defend their motherland, regardless of ethnic, linguistic and religious differences.
Call for the Registry of the Battle of Adwa as World Heritage
A World Heritage Site is a site of ‘cultural and/or natural significance.’ It is also a site so exceptional, according to UNESCO, as to transcend national boundaries and to be of common importance for present and future generations of all humanity. The 1896 final Battle of Adwa and the successive preceding battles at sites, such as Mekelle between Ethiopia and Italy qualify, we argue, as World Heritage Sites. The victory achieved at the Battle of Adwa set the stage for international relations among nations on the basis of mutuality, reciprocity and transparency. Decolonization in Africa began with a victory against Italian colonial aggression in the Horn of Africa.
The Battle of Adwa was a global historic event, for it was a battle heroically and victoriously fought against colonialism and for freedom. It was a battle that stopped the colonial aggressions of Europeans in Africa. It was a battle that taught an unforgettable lesson to Europeans. They were reminded that they might co-exist or work with Africans, Asians or Americans, but could not dominate them or exploit their resources indefinitely. Domination gives rise to resistance and the Battle of Adwa made it clear that domination or aggression could be decisively defeated.
The mountains of Adwa, the mountains of Abi Adi Worq Amba and the hills of Mekelle ought to be marked as natural historic sites and, therefore, together with the battlefield, they should be protected, conserved and promoted in the context of their historic importance and significance for ecological tourism.
Background on UNESCO World Heritage Sites:
At present, 900 sites are on the World Heritage list. Only 9% of the World Heritage sites are in Africa, while 50% of them are in Europe and North America. While Ethiopia succeeded in having only nine World Heritage sites, Italy has registered 43 sites so far. In Africa, the Battlefields of South Africa have registered among the World Heritage sites. Several battlefields are registered throughout the world, and throughout history, and it is time that sites associated with Adwa are included in the list.
Adwa was a story of common purpose and common destiny. The principles established on the battlefield of Adwa must be understood and embraced for Africa to remain centered in its own histories, cultures and socio-economic development. We should always remember that Adwa was won for Africans. Adwa indeed is an African model of victory and resistance. As Levine puts it: “Adwa remains the most outstanding symbol of the ‘mysterious magnetism’ that holds Ethiopia together.”
It is our contention that the Battle of Adwa was a battle that paved the way for a world of justice, mutual respect and co-existence. The Battle of Adwa was a battle for human dignity and therefore its story should be universally recognized and be told again and again. Registering the Battle will ensure the dynamic dispersion of its narrative in all the discourses of the world.
The lessons of the Battle of Adwa ought to be inculcated in the minds of young people so that they would be able to appreciate humanity as one without hierarchy. The Battle of Adwa reminds the young people that no force is powerful enough to impose its will against another people. Ethiopians, despite their disadvantage in modern weaponry, decisively defeated the Italian Army at the Battle of Adwa.
Adwa enshrines freedom.
See also Tadias Magazine.
Dr. Ayele Bekerie is an Associate Professor at Mekelle University, Ethiopia.
Top Ten African Films 2011'
Top Ten African Films 2011'
2011 was a good year for African cinema. In various cinema seats and at home, I’ve been intrigued and moved, horrified and sickened, surprised and hugely entertained by a group of industries that together we call ‘African cinema’ — a sign that what can be expected is anything but stereotypical. In the list below, I’ve chosen films that have expanded what we might think of as ‘African cinema’. Some short films, some documentary, some fiction, some a strange mix of them all.
However, the films that are not listed are perhaps the most powerful ones of the year; those captured on mobile phones and camcorders during critical moments in uprisings, revolutions and elections that have continued to broaden our grasp on the lives and experiences of those whose lives are not yet captured by cinema. This is a new kind of viewing, and one, which I think, will continue to transform the aesthetic, narratives and distribution of African film in 2012.
Some of these films were released in 2010, but gained theatrical release or wider audiences in 2011, so I’ve included them, too. In each case its trailer accompanies a description of the film.
A Screaming Man. Director Mahamat Saleh Haroun. Starring Youssouf Djaoro, Diouc Koma. Chad, 2010, 92 mins
A subtle and masterful story of a father and sons relationship, set against the backdrop of the ongoing civil war in Chad. Filmed around the glittering edges of a hotel swimming pool threatened by the outside world, Haroun’s characteristic wit and tender approach to filming continues his themes of war, fatherhood and family life.
Dirty Laundry. Dir. Stephen Abbott. Starring Bryan van Niekerk, James Ngcobo, Carl Beukes. South Africa, 2011, 16 mins
Roger has a tough time when he shows up to the Wishy Washy at 1am, and begins to separate ‘his whites from his coloreds’. A fantastic short film, a microcosm of the acerbic wit and humor evident in much post-Apartheid cinema.
The Athlete. Dir. Rasselas Lakew and Davey Frankel. Starring Rasselas Lakew. Ethiopia/USA, 2009, 93 mins
Melding breathtaking archival footage with live action, this is the extraordinary story of the triumphs and tragedies of a man considered by many to be the greatest long-distance runner in history: Ethiopian marathon runner Abebe Bikila.
Blood in the Mobile. Dir. Frank Piasecki Poulsen. Denmark/DRC, 2010, 82 mins
Are you reading this on your phone? Poulsen’s documentary is engrossing and hard-hitting as it implicates all of us – through our addiction to our mobile phones – in the civil war in eastern Congo. Poulsen sets out to reveal the source of ‘conflict minerals’, which he suspects are used in the world’s largest mobile phone company, Nokia. Corporate inhumanity turns out to be just as terrifying as the heart of civil war, a different devil, which Poulsen shows in this fantastic and brave documentary.
Drexciya. Dir. Akosua Adoma Owusu. US/Ghana, 2011, 12 mins
Drexciya refers to an underwater subcontinent where the unborn children of pregnant African women thrown off slave ships have adapted to breathe underwater. Poetic, eerie and stunning, an experimental short, a portrait of an abandoned Olympic sized swimming pool in Accra, Ghana, set on “The Riviera” – Ghana’s first pleasure beach.
Microphone. Dir. Ahmad Abdalla. Starring Khaled Abol Naga. Egypt, 2010, 120 mins
Released in cinemas in January 2011, nobody in Egypt saw this film, something that Khaled Abol Naga — the lead actor and co-producer of the film — is thrilled about. Instead, Egypt was in revolution. This fantastic film is part fiction, part documentary, a love letter to the underground arts scene in Alexandria. From hip hop rappers to mournful accordion players, graffiti artists and skateboarders, it is a vibrant, funny and brave snapshot of the world of art that happens beneath the radar of an ambivalent police state.
Witches of Gambaga. Dir. Yaba Badoe. Ghana/UK, 2011, 55 mins
A courageous, intimate exposé follows, over the course of five years, the experiences of some women branded as ‘witches’ by their communities, ostracised and condemned to leave their families, to live in ‘Gambaga’. Death determined by way a chicken dies, Badoe’s film tenderly and courageously exposes the moment where belief and ritual cover horror and prejudice.
No More Fear. Dir. Mourad Ben Cheikh. Tunisia, 2011, 72 mins
The first feature-length documentary about the Tunisian revolution, “No More Fear” was selected for a special screening at Cannes this year. The film brings together news footage of the demonstrations with a variety of players in the revolution, providing a diverse picture of the groundswell that rose up to topple the dictatorial regime. It is passionate, raw, and immediate. It shows a revolution pushed forward by the young, who overcame the population’s long-ingrained fear. (Good to watch with Microphone, for an ‘Arab Spring’ night.)
Viva Riva! Dir. Djo Munga. Starring Patsha Bay, Manie Malone, Diplome Amekindra. 2010, 98 min.
I’m including this, not because I thought it was particularly fantastic, but because it was a triumph in the harsh world of theatrical release for an African film. It gained pretty widespread distribution in the UK with Metrodome, and for a Congolese genre piece — a dark noir full of guns, sex and money — it did quite well. It is good, entertaining viewing.
Pumzi. Dir. Wanuri Kahiu. Starring Kudzani Moswela, Nicole Bailey, Chantelle Burger. Kenya 2009, 20 mins. African sci-fi.
First published in ‘allafrica.com’ December 20, 2011
a Historiography of African Women in Cinema'
a Historiography of African Women in Cinema'
Sarah Maldoror famously asserts, African women must be everywhere. They must be in the images, behind the camera, in the editing room and involved in every stage of the making of a film. They must be the ones to talk about their problems. Extending Maldoror’s assertion to women in front of the screen as cultural readers, they must also be present in all areas of discourse as scholars, critics and theorists of African women in cinema studies. They must be the ones to talk about the vital role that women in cinema play in creating, shaping and determining the course of their cinematic history and the knowledge that it produces.
The African Women in Cinema Project that I initiated in 1997, culminated with the book and film Sisters of the Screen, a title that envisioned a veritable screen culture in which the moving image visualised on myriad screen environments from white cloth to movie screen, television set, computer monitor, inflatable domitron and now mobile phone, tablet and diverse emerging media could be the meeting point for African women in cinema to tell their stories. Moreover, the title contemplated an imaginary community where African women’s experiences of cinema may be shared, analysed, documented, historicised, and archived.
Following the release of the book and film, the Project developed into the Centre for the Study and Research of African women in cinema tracing the trajectory of women as they circulate within evolving screen cultures, mapping a historiography of strategic moments and a timeline of key events, as well as analysing trends and tendencies. The Centre’s organising principle is based on two key elements: the work of the pan-African organisation of women professionals of the moving image created in 1991, now known as the Association of Professional African Women in Cinema, Television and Video/ Association des Femmes Africaines Professionnelles du Cinéma, de la Télévision et de la Vidéo, and the experiences of these individual women recounted in interviews, speeches, artists intentions, mission statements, and in their work. Drawing from the objectives of the organisation: to provide a forum for women to share and exchange their experiences, to formulate mechanisms for continued dialogue and exchange, this formulation may extend to the realm of historiography for which an infrastructure may be developed to assemble the disparate parts.
The year 2011 marked the 20-year anniversary of the historic conference in Ouagadougou on African women film professionals during which an organized movement was born, putting forth the ground rules for an infrastructure to represent and promote their interests. The fruits of these efforts are particularly visible in the institutions that form the future generations of film professionals. As women’s discourse plays an increasingly important role in global dialogue, especially via the Internet and new technologies, an infrastructure for research on African women in cinema studies is imperative. At the same time that digital technologies emerge as key to such a vast endeavor, it is a daunting task in a continent where the digital divide continues to widen.
The myriad political, social and cultural environments of African women in the audio-visual media provide the context for the analysis of current discourse on gender and cinema and its role in cultural policy development; the examination of the various networks that contribute to women’s expanding roles in cinema; the exploration of theoretical questions by African women, and critical perspectives that demonstrate African women’s contributions in cinema through pedagogy for mass communication and consciousness raising, all of which as an ensemble, connect theory, practice, research and scholarship with activism and community outreach.
While there is potentially a great deal of intellectual capital and resources for research, theory-building and dialogue, women’s film history as an academic entity is at present primarily within the boundaries of western institutions, often deemed as research for research sake from an African point of view, and is not generally viewed as a necessity as other issues prove more pressing. On the other hand, film-screening debates have long been a practice throughout the continent. Moreover, cinema as an instrument for community participation and involvement is an increasingly widespread phenomenon. In general, the non-written medias of radio, television and film have always generated dialogue and possibilities for discourse. Nonetheless, academic and activist communities in Africa do coalesce around cultural policy issues, the role of cinema as a tool for consciousness-raising, and the importance of women cultural producers as agents of change. Hence, conferences, seminars and organised debates bring together women across disciplines, from diverse sectors and regions, and as more women filmmakers join academic and film departments, this bond is increasingly strengthening.
A historiography of African women in cinema necessitates an active, protracted, ongoing practice of data collection, organisation, analysis, documentation, and archival work- an activity that entails coordinated, committed, and sustained efforts, though not necessarily centralised. The organising principles of the pan-African organisation of women professionals of the moving image laid out the groundwork for such a continent-wide initiative and the conceptual framework has been embedded in myriad initiatives especially on the local levels. It is on this level that women are the most familiar with needs and concerns on the ground, in the community, and the local and state policies needed to implement them. On the other hand, women on the local level are the least likely to have the resources and the broad-ranging connections to participate in the outreach necessary to benefit from a larger community of women regionally and continentally, which is not to say that there are no efforts towards this objective.
And while Kenyan Anne Mungai, the coordinator for the East Africa region in the 1990s lamented the lack of financial and personal resources to devote to these efforts, she implored women to strive forward nonetheless. However, with the far-reaching potential for coalescing and networking via the Internet and new media technologies in the 2000s onward, the gap has yet to narrow. While projects that include women continent-wide do exist, notably at FESPACO (Pan-African Film Festival of Ouagadougou) and (Federation of African Filmmakers) FEPACI-sponsored initiatives, activities continue to be linguistically based, with the languages of communication in English or French, often at the exclusion of one or the other, a concern of the pan-African women of the moving image organisation from its beginning.
Among these many endeavours, to highlight film festival initiatives emphasises the important role that the film festival has played in promotion, exhibition, marketing, and training and its potential as local and regional conduits around which women may interconnect continentally and globally. As it is at the same time a meeting place for pitching, networking, workshopping and sharing ideas, it is often a pivotal space where African women continent-wide may gather and meet. These initiatives spanning twenty years demonstrate the advocacy role that African women in cinema take on to create the requisite infrastructures for promoting African cultural production: Sierra Leonean Mahen Bonetti, founder and president of the influential New York Film Festival has forged an important Diaspora network since 1993 recently creating cultural projects in her home country. The creation of Women Filmmakers of Zimbabwe (WFOZ) in 1996 ushered in a network of prolific Zimbabwean women in cinema. Notably, the International Images Film Festival for Women (IIFF) launched in 2002, the oldest women’s festival on the continent, founded by Zimbabwean Tsitsi Dangarembga, of which WFOZ is the parent organisation and the initiator of the Distinguished Woman in African Cinema Award in 2009. In 1998, Ivoirien actor-producer Hanny Tchelly established the Festival International du Court Métrage d’Abidjan-FICA (the International Festival of Short Films of Abidjan). In the same year, Burkinabè actress Georgette Paré initiated Casting Sud, a pan-African casting agency to promote African actors. To note, l’Association des Actrices Africaines/the Association of African Actresses had already been created in 1989.
The South African-based Women of the Sun organisation a resource-exchange network of African women filmmakers launched in 2000, inspired several other projects in the region, notably, the African Women Filmmakers Awards in 2003, and in 2004, the African Women Film Festival. Nigerian Amaka Igwe’s BOB TV, the Best of the Best African Film and TV Programmes Market and Expo inaugurated the next year, has as objective to offer a continental platform for African practitioners of the moving image. The African Movie Academy Awards (AMAA) also an initiative from Nigeria, established in 2005 by Peace Anyiam-Osigwe, highlights the significance of African cinema by providing a platform for recognition and celebration. The African in Motion (AIM) Film Festival of Edinburgh founded by South African Lizelle Bischoff in 2006 emerges as one of the most important festivals of African films in the UK. In 2007 a portion of the festival was dedicated to African women and since 2012, Cape Verdean Isabel Moura Mendes has served as director. The Festival International du Documentaire of Agadir in Morocco, founded in 2008 by the late Nouzha Drissi who died tragically in 2011, is the first festival devoted exclusively to documentaries. Festivals des 7 Quartiers, the itinerant film festival of Brazzaville founded in 2008 by Nadège Batou, honoured the women filmmakers of the Congo and elsewhere during the 3rd edition in 2010. Cameroonian Evodie Ngueyeli has taken the baton as chief representative of MisMeBinga, International Women’s Film Festival of Yaoundé created in 2009. A key objective of the Malawi International Film Festival created by Villant Ndasowa also in 2009 is to pioneer the film industry in Malawi by sourcing and providing training to talented Malawians. In the same year, Mariem mint Beyrouk formed the Association of Mauritanian Women of the Image as a means to raise women’s consciousness about women in general, issues around health, female genital cutting, marriage of adolescent girls, among others. In addition, their hope is to organise festivals and meetings with other women throughout the continent.
At the start of the second decade of the new millennium several festival-related projects were launched in Africa and the diaspora: View Images Film Festival, an undertaking by Zambian Musola Cathrine Kaseketi, founder of Vilole Images Productions, created a space to celebrate through the art of film, the abilities of all women, and particularly to integrate women with disabilities. Images That Matter International Film Festival of Ethiopia founded by Madji-da Abdi has a main objective to expose the Ethiopian public to local and international films, especially by utilising subtitles in Amharic, the national language. Kenyan Wanjiku wa Ngugi founder of Helsinki African Film Festival wants to show the diversity of the African continent to the Finnish public in order to have a conversation informed by Africans themselves thus giving a more realistic view of their realities. Similarly, Norwegian-Ghanaian Lamisi Gurah founded FilmAfrikana in order to expose the Norwegian public to films by people of Africa and the African Diaspora by providing a different perspective that counters the dominant media portrayals of a helpless, war-ravaged, disease-ridden continent. Nigerian Adaobi Obiegbosi’s desire to create a continental platform for African film students to share their work and ideas inspired the creation of the African Student Film Festival (ASFF) in 2012.
These film festivals and meeting places, both women-focused spaces and general milieu created by women have mechanisms set in place for the kinds of activities necessary for the organisation, analysis and archiving of information, as the events, meetings and activities are often recorded and filmed, biographies, artists’ statements and filmographies amassed and newsletters and catalogues and directories published, all foundational components for the acquisition of resources and data collections. These initiatives demonstrate the genuine effort to globalise the experiences of African women in cinema and their potential as information-gathering strategies, for opening avenues for access to informational networks and for creating archival sources for research and consultation.
Here are some of the women filmmakers from the continent since 2000:
Raja Amari | Tunisia. Satin Rouge. 35mm, color, 91
*Maji-da Abdi | Ethiopia (France). The River Between
Us. 26 mn., doc.
Mariam Abu Ouf | Egypt. Sleep Talk.
*Kamla Abu Zekri | Egypt. Regard vers le ciel. 10 mn.
Mariam Abu Ouf | Egypt. Girl Trap.
Kamla Abu Zekri | Egypt. Pile ou Face (Malek wala
ketaba), 86 mn. fiction.
Kamla Abu Zekri | Egypt. L’amour et la passion. 95
Gilli Apter | South Africa. Joseph.
*Yasmina Adi | France | Algeria . L’autre 8 mai | The
Other 8th of May, doc.
Dami Akinnusi (UK) Malcolm's Echo: The Legacy of
Angela Aquereburu | France | Togo. Zem. Television
series Canal + Afrique.
| Algeria. Ici, on noie les algériens/
Here, we drown Algerians. Doc., 90 mn.
See also www.africanwomenincinema.org July 12, 2012
They call it the New Spice Route, an homage to the medieval trade network that connected Europe, Africa, and Asia, even if today’s “spice road” has nothing to do with cinnamon, cloves, or silks. Instead, it’s a superpower’s superhighway, on which trucks and ships shuttle fuel, food, and military equipment through a growing maritime and ground transportation infrastructure to a network of supply depots, tiny camps, and airfields meant to service a fast-growing U.S. military presence in Africa.Few in the U.S. know about this superhighway, or about the dozens of training missions and joint military exercises being carried out in nations that most Americans couldn’t locate on a map. Even fewer have any idea that military officials are invoking the names of Marco Polo and the Queen of Sheba as they build a bigger military footprint in Africa. It’s all happening in the shadows of what in a previous imperial age was known as “the Dark Continent.”
In East African ports, huge metal shipping containers arrive with the everyday necessities for a military on the make. They’re then loaded onto trucks that set off down rutted roads toward dusty bases and distant outposts.On the highway from Djibouti to Ethiopia, for example, one can see the bare outlines of this shadow war at the truck stops where local drivers take a break from their long-haul routes. The same is true in other African countries. The nodes of the network tell part of the story: Manda Bay, Garissa, and Mombasa in Kenya; Kampala and Entebbe in Uganda; Bangui and Djema in the Central African Republic; Nzara in South Sudan; Dire Dawa in Ethiopia; and the Pentagon’s showpiece African base, Camp Lemonnier, in Djibouti on the coast of the Gulf of Aden, among others. According to Pat Barnes, a spokesman for U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), Camp Lemonnier serves as the only official U.S. base on the continent. “There are more than 2,000 U.S. personnel stationed there,” he told TomDispatch recently by email. “The primary AFRICOM organization at Camp Lemonnier is Combined Joint Task Force — Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA). CJTF-HOA’s efforts are focused in East Africa and they work with partner nations to assist them in strengthening their defense capabilities.”Barnes also noted that Department of Defense personnel are assigned to U.S. embassies across Africa, including 21 individual Offices of Security Cooperation responsible for facilitating military-to-military activities with “partner nations.” He characterized the forces involved as small teams carrying out pinpoint missions. Barnes did admit that in “several locations in Africa, AFRICOM has a small and temporary presence of personnel. In all cases, these military personnel are guests within host-nation facilities, and work alongside or coordinate with host-nation personnel.”
In 2003, when CJTF-HOA was first set up there, it was indeed true that the only major U.S. outpost in Africa was Camp Lemonnier. In the ensuing years, in quiet and largely unnoticed ways, the Pentagon and the CIA have been spreading their forces across the continent. Today — official designations aside — the U.S. maintains a surprising number of bases in Africa. And “strengthening” African armies turns out to be a truly elastic rubric for what’s going on.Under President Obama, in fact, operations in Africa have accelerated far beyond the more limited interventions of the Bush years: last year’s war in Libya; a regional drone campaign with missions run out of airports and bases in Djibouti, Ethiopia, and the Indian Ocean archipelago nation of Seychelles; a flotilla of 30 ships in that ocean supporting regional operations; a multi-pronged military and CIA campaign against militants in Somalia, including intelligence operations, training for Somali agents, a secret prison, helicopter attacks, and U.S. commando raids; a massive influx of cash for counterterrorism operations across East Africa; a possible old-fashioned air war, carried out on the sly in the region using manned aircraft; tens of millions of dollars in arms for allied mercenaries and African troops; and a special ops expeditionary force (bolstered by State Department experts) dispatched to help capture or kill Lord’s Resistance Army leader Joseph Kony and his senior commanders. And this only begins to scratch the surface of Washington’s fast-expanding plans and activities in the region.
To support these mushrooming missions, near-constant training operations, and alliance-building joint exercises, outposts of all sorts are sprouting continent-wide, connected by a sprawling shadow logistics network. Most American bases in Africa are still small and austere, but growing ever larger and more permanent in appearance. For example, photographs from last year of Ethiopia’s Camp Gilbert, examined by TomDispatch, show a base filled with air-conditioned tents, metal shipping containers, and 55-gallon drums and other gear strapped to pallets, but also recreation facilities with TVs and videogames, and a well-appointed gym filled with stationary bikes, free weights, and other equipment.
After 9/11, the U.S. military moved into three major regions in significant ways: South Asia (primarily Afghanistan), the Middle East (primarily Iraq), and the Horn of Africa. Today, the U.S. is drawing down in Afghanistan and has largely left Iraq. Africa, however, remains a growth opportunity for the Pentagon.The U.S. is now involved, directly and by proxy, in military and surveillance operations against an expanding list of regional enemies. They include al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in North Africa; the Islamist movement Boko Haram in Nigeria; possible al-Qaeda-linked militants in post-Qaddafi Libya; Joseph Kony’s murderous Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in the Central African Republic, Congo, and South Sudan; Mali’s Islamist Rebels of the Ansar Dine, al-Shabaab in Somalia; and guerrillas from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula across the Gulf of Aden in Yemen.
A recent investigation by the Washington Post revealed that contractor-operated surveillance aircraft based out of Entebbe, Uganda, are scouring the territory used by Kony’s LRA at the Pentagon’s behest, and that 100 to 200 U.S. commandos share a base with the Kenyan military at Manda Bay. Additionally, U.S. drones are being flown out of Arba Minch airport in Ethiopia and from the Seychelles Islands in the Indian Ocean, while drones andF-15 fighter-bombers have been operating out of Camp Lemonnier as part of the shadow wars being waged by the U.S. military and the CIA in Yemen and Somalia. Surveillance planes used for spy missions over Mali, Mauritania, and the Sahara desert are also flying missions from Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso, and plans are reportedly in the works for a similar base in the newborn nation of South Sudan.U.S. special operations forces are stationed at a string of even more shadowy forward operating posts on the continent, including one in Djema in the Central Africa Republic and others in Nzara in South Sudan and Dungu in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The U.S. also has had troops deployed in Mali, despite having officially suspended military relations with that country following a coup. According to research by TomDispatch, the U.S. Navy also has a forward operating location, manned mostly by Seabees, Civil Affairs personnel, and force-protection troops, known as Camp Gilbert in Dire Dawa, Ethiopia. U.S. military documents indicate that there may be other even lower-profile U.S. facilities in the country. In addition to Camp Lemonnier, the U.S. military also maintains another hole-and-corner outpost in Djibouti — a Navy port facility that lacks even a name. AFRICOM did not respond to requests for further information on these posts before this article went to press.
Additionally, U.S. Special Operations Forces areengaged in missions against the Lord’s Resistance Army from a rugged camp in Obo in the Central African Republic, but little is said about that base either. “U.S. military personnel working with regional militaries in the hunt for Joseph Kony are guests of the African security forces comprising the regional counter-LRA effort,” Barnes told me. “Specifically in Obo, the troops live in a small camp and work with partner nation troops at a Ugandan facility that operates at the invitation of the government of the Central African Republic.”And that’s still just part of the story. U.S. troops are also working at bases inside Uganda. Earlier this year, elite Force Recon Marines from the Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force 12 (SPMAGTF-12) trained soldiers from the Uganda People’s Defense Force, which not only runs missions in the Central African Republic, but also acts as a proxy force for the U.S. in Somalia in the battle against the Islamist militants known as al-Shabaab. They now supply the majority of the troops to the African Union Mission protecting the U.S.-supported government in the Somali capital, Mogadishu.
In the spring, Marines from SPMAGTF-12 also trained soldiers from the Burundi National Defense Force (BNDF), the second-largest contingent in Somalia. In April and May, members of Task Force Raptor, 3rd Squadron, 124th Cavalry Regiment, of the Texas National Guard took part in a training mission with the BNDF in Mudubugu, Burundi.In February, SPMAGTF-12 sent trainers to Djibouti to work with an elite local army unit, while other Marines traveled to Liberia to focus on teaching riot-control techniques to Liberia’s military as part of what is otherwise a State Department-directed effort to rebuild that force.In addition, the U.S. is conducting counterterrorism training and equipping militaries in Algeria, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mauritania, Niger, and Tunisia. AFRICOM also has 14 major joint-training exercises planned for 2012, including operations in Morocco, Cameroon, Gabon, Botswana, South Africa, Lesotho, Senegal, and Nigeria.The size of U.S. forces conducting these joint exercises and training missions fluctuates, but Barnes told me that, “on an average basis, there are approximately 5,000 U.S. Military and DoD personnel working across the continent” at any one time. Next year, even more American troops are likely to be on hand as units from the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, known as the “Dagger Brigade,” are scheduled to deploy to the region. The roughly 3,000 soldiers in the brigade will be involved in, among other activities, training missions while acquiring regional expertise. “Special Forces have a particular capability in this area, but not the capacity to fulfill the demand; and we think we will be able to fulfill the demand by using conventional forces,” Colonel Andrew Dennis told a reporter about the deployment.
Last month, the Washington Postrevealed that, since at least 2009, the “practice of hiring private companies to spy on huge expanses of African territory… has been a cornerstone of the U.S. military’s secret activities on the continent.” Dubbed Tusker Sand, the project consists of contractors flying from Entebbe airport in Uganda and a handful of other airfields. They pilot turbo-prop planes that look innocuous but are packed with sophisticated surveillance gear.
America’s mercenary spies in Africa are, however, just part of the story.While the Pentagon canceled an analogous drone surveillance program dubbed Tusker Wing, it has spent millions of dollars to upgrade the civilian airport atArba Minch, Ethiopia, to enable drone missions to be flown from it. Infrastructure to support such operations has been relatively cheap and easy to construct, but a much more daunting problem looms — one intimately connected to the New Spice Route.“Marco Polo wasn’t just an explorer,” Army planner Chris Zahner explained at a conference in Djibouti last year. “[H]e was also a logistician developing logistics nodes along the Silk Road. Now let’s do something similar where the Queen of Sheba traveled.” Paeans to bygone luminaries aside, the reasons for pouring resources into sea and ground supply networks have less to do with history than with Africa’s airport infrastructure.Of the 3,300 airfields on the continent identified in a National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency review, the Air Force has surveyed only 303 of them and just 158 of those surveys are current. Of those airfields that have been checked out, half won’t support the weight of the C-130 cargo planes that the U.S. military leans heavily on to transport troops and materiel. These limitations were driven home during Natural Fire 2010, one of that year’s joint training exercises hosted by AFRICOM. When C-130s were unable to use an airfield in Gulu, Uganda, an extra $3 million was spent instead to send in Chinook helicopters.
In addition, diplomatic clearances and airfield restrictions on U.S. military aircraft cost the Pentagon time and money, while often raising local suspicion and ire. In a recent article in the military trade publication Army Sustainment, Air Force Major Joseph Gaddis touts an emerging solution: outsourcing. The concept was tested last year, during another AFRICOM training operation, Atlas Drop 2011.“Instead of using military airlift to move equipment to and from the exercise, planners used commercial freight vendors,” writes Gadddis. “This provided exercise participants with door-to-door delivery service and eliminated the need for extra personnel to channel the equipment through freight and customs areas.” Using mercenary cargo carriers to skirt diplomatic clearance issues and move cargo to airports that can’t support U.S. C-130s is, however, just one avenue the Pentagon is pursuing to support its expanding operations in Africa. Another is construction.
The Great Build-Up
Military contracting documents reveal plans for an investment of up to $180 million or more in construction at Camp Lemonnier alone. Chief among the projects will be the laying of 54,500 square meters of taxiways “to support medium-load aircraft” and the construction of a 185,000 square meter Combat Aircraft Loading Area. In addition, plans are in the works to erect modular maintenance structures, hangers, and ammunition storage facilities, all needed for an expanding set of secret wars in Africa.Other contracting documents suggest that, in the years to come, the Pentagon will be investing up to $50 million in new projects at that base, Kenya’s Camp Simba, and additional unspecified locations in Africa. Still other solicitation materials suggest future military construction in Egypt, where the Pentagon already maintains a medical research facility, and still more work in Djibouti.
No less telling are contracting documents indicating a coming influx of “emergency troop housing” at Camp Lemonnier, including almost 300 additional Containerized Living Units (CLUs), stackable, air-conditioned living quarters, as well as latrines and laundry facilities. Military documents also indicate that a nearly $450,000 exercise facility was installed at the U.S. base in Entebbe, Uganda, last year. All of this indicates that, for the Pentagon, its African build-up has only begun.
The Scramble for Africa
In a recent speech in Arlington, Virginia, AFRICOM Commander General Carter Ham explained the reasoning behind U.S. operations on the continent: “The absolute imperative for the United States military [is] to protect America, Americans, and American interests; in our case, in my case, [to] protect us from threats that may emerge from the African continent.” As an example, Ham named the Somali-based al-Shabaab as a prime threat. “Why do we care about that?” he asked rhetorically. “Well, al-Qaeda is a global enterprise… we think they very clearly do present, as an al-Qaeda affiliate… a threat to America and Americans.”
Fighting them over there, so we don’t need to fight them here has been a core tenet of American foreign policy for decades, especially since 9/11. But trying to apply military solutions to complex political and social problems has regularly led to unforeseen consequences. For example, last year’s U.S.-supported war in Libya resulted in masses of well-armed Tuareg mercenaries, who had been fighting for Libyan autocrat Muammar Qaddafi, heading back to Mali where they helped destabilize that country. So far, the result has been a military coup by an American-trained officer; a takeover of some areas by Tuareg fighters of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, who had previously raided Libyan arms depots; and other parts of the country being seized by the irregulars of Ansar Dine, the latest al-Qaeda “affiliate” on the American radar. One military intervention, in other words, led to three major instances of blowback in a neighboring country in just a year.With the Obama administration clearly engaged in a twenty-first century scramble for Africa, the possibility of successive waves of overlapping blowback grows exponentially. Mali may only be the beginning and there’s no telling how any of it will end. In the meantime, keep your eye on Africa. The U.S. military is going to make news there for years to come.Nick Turse is the associate editor of TomDispatch.com and author of The Case for Withdrawal from Afghanistan (Verso Books) and Terminator Planet (with Tom Engelhardt) Turse is currently a fellow at Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute. His website is NickTurse.com.This article originally appeared on TomDispatch.com under the title: “ Secret Wars, Secret Bases, and the Pentagon’s New Spice Route: Obama’s Scramble for Africa”
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