General Townsend: “Africa Too Important to Ignore”

During an interview held last week in anticipation of his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, USAFRICOM commander General Stephen Townsend called Africa “too important for Americans to ignore”. Quoting the general further, “China and Russia don’t ignore Africa, and that alone should say something”.

As Africa grows, it is set to become increasingly important on the world stage. Today, Africa accounts for just under 3% of the world’s nominal GDP but features some of the fastest growing economies in the world, something which will eventually make its share in global wealth rise; even if not significantly in the near future. Perhaps more pressingly in the short term, Africa remains a key source of materials such as cobalt and chromium which have significant strategic importance.

Russian and Nigerian defense ministers meet, 2017 (Russian MoD)

The general highlighted that the fragility inherent in many of the continent’s polities is leading them to turn towards any help they can get, including that from Russia; and China which he accuses of debt-trap diplomacy. Regardless, it is worth nothing that with the Soviet Union’s anti-colonial legacy and both nations’ willingness to omit requirements on democratic and fiscal standards in exchange for their support, these powers are more welcome partners for some African leaders than the United States and the wider West. General Townsend went on to say:

“An African leader once said to me ‘A drowning man will reach for any hand. They are drowning in poverty and will take help from whomever it comes from. […] The Chinese sometimes refer to Africa as their ‘second continent,’ and some Chinese military leaders refer to the east coast of Africa as China’s ‘fifth island chain.”

Aside from strategic competition underscored by China’s large engagement with Africa, Townsend was quick to point to a wider variety of dangers that ambivalence may pose to Americans. For one, some African states remain a hotbed of extremist terrorism with groups like Somalia’s al-Qaida affiliate al-Shabaab remaining well-entrenched. Meanwhile in the field of microbiology, Africa’s lackluster health record may and historically has contributed to the rise of a range of diseases and variants which then made their way across the ocean.

US and Somali forces training together (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Zoe Russell)

Regardless of his outlook, the general’s statements come at a time of a general US military retreat from Africa. US Army Africa and US Army Europe have been consolidated into one organization a few months prior while American soldiers have been withdrawn from places like Somalia. This coincides with a larger downgrading of military attaché posts across the continent.