It would be nigh impossible for the US to move their controversial Africa Command from Stuttgart to Ezulwini, says Peter Fabricius.
Pretoria - US diplomats are understandably rather disparaging about a weekend report that they could be planning to move the headquarters of their controversial Africa Command (Africom) from Brussels to Swaziland. Not least because it’s not in Brussels, Belgium, now. It’s in Stuttgart, Germany.
But, hey, those European cities all look the same.
The story speculated rather loosely on the basis of one fact, that the US is building a large new embassy in Ezulwini, where the royals live, not far from Swaziland’s capital Mbabane.
The report said the building site is about the size of five rugby fields. And it said locals had seen “deep excavations that had taken place to possibly house a subterranean element of the building.”
A basement, perhaps?
The report quoted a Dr Mopeli Moshoeshoe of Wits University’s department of international relations, who also aired his more general views that as China’s influence on the continent had increased, the US has taken a much keener interest in Africa but had been resisted by the Africans.
“If we were to speculate, (the Swaziland complex) may serve as a base for Africom,” Moshoeshoe said.
Speculation is free of course.
For several years, Washington has been constructing rather fortress-like embassies on a roughly similar template – a concrete block in the centre of a wide and open expanse of ground encircled by concrete vehicle barriers and a security fence.
Its embassy in Pretoria gives one a pretty good idea of the template.
The size, solidity and design of these embassies is the result of a defensive rather than an offensive intention. They are designed and built to try to avoid any repetitions of al-Qaeda’s destruction of the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in 1998 at a cost of hundreds of (mostly African) lives, by driving vehicles packed with explosives close to the buildings and detonating them.
It is true that the Pentagon did originally intend to base Africom in Africa and met stiff resistance, largely led by former president Thabo Mbeki’s administration.
So the US decided to establish Africom in Stuttgart where it already was in effect, though until then, as a division of US European Command, rather than as a separate command.
It’s very unlikely that the US would be so crass as to move Africom from Stuttgart to Ezulwini, surreptitiously, without consulting Africans very widely, including the AU.
In any case that would be physically nigh impossible, as anyone who has visited Africom HQ, Kelley Barracks, in Stuttgart would tell you.
It is a sprawling complex that spreads over many more than five rugby fields and, incidentally, has sub-divisions in other parts of Germany and Italy.
For one thing, where would you put the Burger King, the KFC and the other fast-food restaurants?
And why would the US choose Swaziland of all places?
Other friendly and more substantial countries, like Liberia and Botswana, were believed to be willing to host Africom when the US was still lobbying African nations to host it on the continent. They would be more likely hosts of a clandestine Africom operating from a basement in Africa.
The story did mention Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti as another one of the “US fortresses in Africa”, without adding that it was part of Africom. Which it is. It is Africom’s only permanent footprint – though not its overall headquarters – on African soil, the base of its Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa which Africom itself describes as “a dynamic, operational US Military headquarters, countering violent extremist organisations in East Africa”.
The main violent extremist organisations the Africom operations are countering – mainly through supporting and training local militaries, though no doubt also through more offensive operations – is al-Shabaab, the militant Islamist group based in Somalia which is increasingly extending its reach into Kenya with terrorist attacks like the one on Nairobi’s Westgate mall last year.
That’s what Africom is about. Not spying on royal shenanigans.
* Peter Fabricius is Independent Newspapers’ foreign editor.