The Dilemma at the Heart of America's Approach to Africa

If Washington really wants to promote African democracy, why is it partnering with the continent's autocrats to create military spy programs?

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U.S. marines watch as members of the Uganda army train at a military training school in Singo. (Reuters)

JUBA, South Sudan -- In an extraordinary pair of articles published this week, The Washington Post has filled in the picture of how the U.S. military and intelligence establishment have worked to create a network of a dozen or so air bases for spying purposes across Africa. What is most remarkable about the articles are not the details themselves, which involve small, specially equipped turboprop aircraft flying surveillance missions out of remote airfields in the Sahel and in equatorial East Africa.

What stands out most about the articles, instead, is the way that this news has cast the African continent as a place where serious American interests are at play. Such things are all too rare for the mainstream media, which typically chronicles African political upheaval, violence and suffering as distant and almost random incidents or miscellany with little connection to life outside of the continent.

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The Africa of our day-to-day coverage is dominated, in other words, by vivid splashes of color, by scene and emotion, and it is largely bereft of form or of pattern, and of politics and ideas that could help connect one development to another or connect the whole to the rest of the world. Some of this may be changing slowly with the recent sharp rise of China's profile throughout the continent, which has drawn a belated response from a United States suddenly eager to avoid seeing the continent be snatched away from the West, as some fear.

The Post pieces were ultimately as remarkable for what they didn't say as what they did, though. And in this regard, they highlight the need for the media to hold the actions of the Unites States up against its rhetoric, much as it is wont to do with regard to China, whose rote-like discourse on Africa emphasizes terms like "win-win," and "non-interference," etc.

By helpful coincidence, the Post's stories, which detail the ongoing militarization of Washington's policies toward Africa, were published at the very same time that the Obama Administration was unveiling its purportedly new strategy toward the continent.

The leading messenger for this was Hillary Clinton, whose talk yesterday about economic opportunity for American businesses in Africa was as welcome as it was overdue. As a spate of recent articles has made clear, she spoke of the Africa as a place of strong economic growth and the continent with the highest returns on investment. It is precisely Chinese firms' awareness of this that has been driving them, and hundreds of thousands of Chinese migrants, to Africa in recent years in search of opportunity.

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Howard W. French is the author of China's Second Continent: How a Million Migrants are Building a New Empire in Africa, and is writing a book about the geopolitics of East Asia.

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