Sunday, May 19, 2024

AFRICOM ÔÇô a perspective from Botswana

“… I am old enough to know that in the world in which we live, you cannot take anything for granted.”

The above statement was made by President Festus Mogae, on the occasion of his visit to the United States recently, to whom this essay is dedicated. The debate on whether the so-called Third World governments should agree to US and European military presence in their backyard has enjoyed unprecedented prominence in both the popular media and academic literature because the seemingly intractable political and economic problems of developing countries have become an increasingly important theme in both domestic policy and international relations. In the context of developing African countries particularly their weak position has allowed the debate to become even highly contentious for a number of reasons, not least among them the “carrot and stick” approach to aid often taken by the powerful countries to induce acquiescence to at times unfair demands.

The aim of this essay is both to critique the comments that have already been made about AFRICOM and to help the reader to understand how to attack and analyse problems with which our country is faced today. My argument is that in this country academics have a habit of providing answers only in reaction to some other policy factor which is already in existence and which their “new” ideas call into question, thereby entering into a controversial relation with existing policy, and, in so doing, generating a power struggle with policymakers. I seek to demonstrate that this reactive approach does not take public policy any step further, at the same time contending that the government needs academics – who, presumably, are the source of a wider pool of fresh ideas ÔÇô to help shape its agenda. I make a plea, citing AFRICOM as an illustration, for an ever new assessment of our reality by academics, in the hope that then the process of policy formation will unfold as a continual historical process. In addition, I make the point that hitherto the analysis of our relations with the international community has not been viewed from an historical perspective. Here, I attempt to demonstrate that the international dimension can completely alter the consequences of domestic policies.

I shall not repeat some arguments made against this country hosting AFRICOM which although advanced mainly by political scientists, are obviously spurious. The interested reader is referred to an analytical piece by Theresa Whelan (Mmegi 31 August 2007, 16; Mmegi 7 September 2007, 23). Nevertheless, comment on a few of these arguments if only for illustrative purposes, is warranted.

Among such arguments is the untenable (but to many people emotionally appealing) contention that seeks to equate any military pact with the US to total surrender of national sovereignty. If this argument were taken to its logical conclusion all treaties governing international relations (including economic relations) would be rendered otiose and all resultant international bodies such as the United Nations, World Trade Organisation and SACU would cease to exist.

A little theoretical exposition will dispel the misguided belief about cession or usurpation of domestic policy space. And so I hope the reader will not object if, at this juncture, I should attempt, at the risk of being pedantic, to treat the philosophical problem of theory and practice.

This is because theory makes possible an analysis of reality, implying that a flawed understanding of reality makes a rational action impossible. The challenge posed by AFRICOM is to make a rational action.

Let me illustrate how sovereignty works by examining the legal implications of this concept in the realm of international economic relations. By establishing the UN or WTO or SACU, constituent states such as Botswana have themselves consciously and consensually ceded a part of their sovereignty to an international body in exchange for the privilege of membership. In other words, each constituent state has subordinated itself to an institution created collectively by constituent states. This is an act of submission and constitution. The product of this compact is an autonomous order in which primarily the constituents are subjects only as sovereigns. The authority of the UN or WTO or SACU is illustrative of this autonomy ÔÇô how independent states can be bound together by the tie of common subjection to a body whose rules (that is, their own rules of conduct created through such body), they must obey. In this act of submission the individual country participates without losing all its sovereignty and can reclaim such sovereignty by withdrawal.

In general, such partial alienation implies that the act of submission does not totally restrict or prohibit a country to enter into other agreements, bilateral or otherwise, although the concurrence of other participants may be helpful. This is significant as it helps us to understand that the consent of other participants is not a condition sine qua non to hosting AFRICOM. Partial cession implies equality between the constituent states. In turn, the notion of equality presupposes that all the constituent states have in common the same commitment and none has any interest in making the conditions of participation more onerous to others. This can be achieved through negotiation as in the case of bilateral or even multilateral agreements. I should expect that AFRICOM would be an outcome of negotiation.

Partial cession also secures for the individual state, as a quid pro quo, a particular interest. This particular interest, as opposed to the general interest common to members, is the motivational force behind the state partially giving up its sovereignty. Again, it is not uncommon to find partial cession to one degree or other in bilateral agreements even if political or security-related. And there’s the rub: whether the government decides to host AFRICOM will ultimately be determined by which interest prevails, the general interest or the national interest. This lengthy detour on sovereignty was necessary.

Also equally untenable are two arguments: first, that by agreeing to AFRICOM, one enduring result is the spectre of international terrorism as certain fundamentalist elements seek to displace US forces. Kenya is often cited ominously as a study case. This argument can be disposed of fairly quickly. International terrorism is a fact of modern life and respects no territorial frontiers.

This country is already experiencing a massive migration by the populations of neighbouring countries with a rise in the incidence and complexity of violent crime. Terrorism is thus a real threat. The example of Kenya is a bad one. As I recall at the time of the bombings the US had no significant military presence in that country yet not unlike others Kenya was not spared violent attack. This fact is also demonstrative of choice of soft targets as opposed to military installations. The successful resolution of the phenomenon of jihad lies well beyond our own shores.

Second, the political impact argument has been advanced. This holds that by entering into security-related pacts domestic policy space is surrendered or even (as some would have us believe) usurped. There is a close nexus between this argument and that which places premium on the overall implications for geopolitics. I have indirectly answered these arguments by alluding to negotiation and discussing the concept of partial cession.

As I said above, the task of theory consists in making a re-assessment, in the light of the changing conditions of our country, of its needs and interests and aspirations. It is on this score that the academics have let us down us in not asking basic questions about the particular situation in which this country happens to find itself at this time. One of these basic questions is: what is the future of this country? Of course, theory alone cannot give a conclusive answer to this question about the future. The main point though is that in AFRICOM the government should not lose the opportunity to enter into a strategic alliance with those whom we consider (and likewise those who consider us) to be traditional allies, mainly because of excessive timidity and misguided moral scruples, nurtured in part by academic institutions in the SADC countries. I am tempted to agree with the average man that some of our neighbours are envious of our politically stable democracy and the country’s rich endowment with natural resources.

To be sure, it is precisely because of such endowment that we must come to terms with the realities. In a decade this country will be the main source of energy but at the same time will lack water. What is the truth of the matter? Dare I say it, conflict. A prerequisite to any strategic alliance between us and a dominant world power would be the guarantee of our survival as a sovereign nation for the next fifty years in not a dissimilar fashion as that secured by the EU from the US since 1945. Today, the Europeans are a world economic power; so, too, is Japan, thanks largely to the US underwriting both projects.

Who gains from protection? If the value of the benefits (immediate and future) is less than the present and future value of the costs, such a pact is a bad investment. It is true that in AFRICOM we are faced with the risk (or cost?) of alienating the traditional support of some countries but, South Africa excepted, support is singularly political. On the other hand, the benefit of a superpower guaranteeing our own security is immeasurable. By providing security from outside, the US will render it unnecessary for our government to provide it, with the practical consequence that this will impact positively on social welfare programmes. In addition, our products have preferential access to US markets, and there is the prospect of benefiting from advance medical technology transfer due to collaboration on HIV/AIDS research.

Let me conclude by paraphrasing the late Professor Wells in a different context. Of course, political considerations must be given due weight in deciding on AFRICOM but the political cost should always be balanced against the economic benefits of a project involving security. On balance, AFRICOM bears the hallmarks of a wise public investment. Here, again, one need not look further than Kenya for validation. South Africa is already frothing at the mouth.

*Mothobi is a trade scholar, who is now a High Court Judge at the Botswana High Court. This article was first published 26 June 2010

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