The Australian media this week reported that the country’s specialist forces are on standby to help rescue school girls abducted by Islamist militants in northern Nigeria.
The Australian offer comes on the back of others from Canada and Israel to deploy resources, mostly technical, to help rescue the girls, and adds to the 80 American troops already on the ground.
The willingness to send troops into Africa has seen long-rested western powers stir into action, including Germany which in January had a fallout in its grand coalition over a plan to send troops to the Central African Republic.
The German plan was a result of lobbying by France for the European Union to send troops into CAR. Paris has seen its historical role in Africa bloom again, and is seeing even the United States, chastened after its December 1992 to March 1994 Somalia “Operation Restore Hope” debacle, tentatively put out feelers on the continent.
The West is having to tread carefully, given echoes of its past on the continent but this has not dampened the growing military enthusiasm to intervene widely.
More than any colonial power, the French hardly foresaw or accepted decolonisation, having attached not only tremendous material but also symbolic value to its colonies. Therefore, even after independence, France continued to extract benefits from its former colonies through secret agreements.
In order to continue to exact leverage over most of its former African colonies, France signed a host of secretive agreements heavily weighted in its favour.
The agreements, which were part of the Colonial Pact, gave France an upper hand over these countries’ resources, as well as their military affairs.
Part of the agreement gave France the legal right to intervene militarily in African countries, and also to station troops permanently in bases and military facilities exclusively run by the French. The pact also forbade these countries from seeking other military alliances except the one Paris had offered them.
This made most of the Francophone countries France’s pré carré (private preserve) even after independence.
Between 1962-1995, France intervened militarily in African countries 19 times. During the last 50 years, a total of 67 coups happened in 26 countries in Africa; 16 of those countries are French ex-colonies.
But their series of blunders during the Rwandan genocide, the 1996-1997 Zaire crisis— in which they continued to support the collapsing government of Mobutu Sese Seko— combined with tough economic realities at home saw France reset its Africa engagement, dropping its unilateral approach in favour of multilateral cooperation.
The military coup in Mali in 2012 and the current Central Africa crisis has seen France increase its military footprint and activities in Africa once again.
At the request of the Malian government, on January 11, 2013 France launched military operations against insurgent targets in northern. This brought back the memories of previous French interventions.
In the ongoing crisis in Central African Republic, France has also taken a prominent role.
Overall, according to the French Ministry of Defence, in February 2013, of 10,025 military personnel deployed overseas, 4,610 were in West Africa, 2,180 in Central Africa and 270 were involved in anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden.
The United States
During the Cold War, US foreign policy was fairly clear, it was based on “US vs. Them”, “them” being the Communists and their allies. The central strategy was containment of the Communist.
After the end of the Cold War, buoyed by the defeat of the USSR, US foreign policy embarked on “The New World Order”. The US saw and acted as the uncontested leader of this new order. Multilateralism rather than unilateralism was now the byword.
Saddam Hussein was the first to face the wrath of multilateralism when in 1990 he invaded Kuwait. Then US president George H. Bush cobbled together a coalition of 34 countries; a force numbering between 500,000–600,000 with the blessing of the United Nations. Saddam was defeated.
Shortly after, the US embarked on another foreign expedition, this time in Somalia to contain the warlords ravaging the country. This proved more difficult than anticipated. The humanitarian effort dubbed Operation Restore Hope that was launched with fanfare quickly turned sour, when some 18 US servicemen were killed.
After being chastised over the Somalia operation, the US remains famously reticent to committing troops in intractable “tribal” conflicts in far flung areas.
The bombing of the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in 1998 brought home the reality of transnational non-state actors. Their engagement shifted the nature of the war, the strategy and the operation.
The safety and security of US personnel, safeguarding of critical trade routes, combined with the emergence of China, has seen the US increase its resources and operations in Africa.
The United States Africa Command (AFRICOM), established in 2007, is the main vehicle of Washington’s new security-focused policy towards Africa.
The Horn of Africa and Sahel are the two regions the US has increasingly focused on in its counter- terrorism efforts.
In the Horn, the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF- HOA), established in 2001, and based at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, is the American military’s main operational presence in Horn of Africa, where it has an estimated 4,000 troops. The key role here is to destabilise and destroy Al Shabaab- the Somali-based Islamist group linked to Al Qaeda.
Horn of Africa and Great Lakes
In Somalia, the US has deployed about two dozen regular troops to advise the fragile government of Hassan Shekh Mahmoud. Following the breakout of conflict in South Sudan early this year, the US deployed 45 military personnel to protect its citizens and their property.
After Camp Lemonnier, the largest US deployment is in Entebbe in Uganda. A total of 300 military officers are stationed in a dilapidated compound that has recently received a huge facelift. Their key function here is to look for Lord’s Resistance Army leader Joseph Kony.
In Camp Simba, located in the remote Manda Bay in Lamu, Kenya, there are an estimated 60 military officers stationed there since the end of 2013.
According to the White House, there are about 100 US military personnel in Niamey Niger. Following Boko Haram’s abduction of the school children, the US sent 70 military personnel in Nigeria, with 50 regularly assigned to the US Embassy, and 20 Marines there for training.
The US has announced it was sending 80 troops to Chad as part of the team to help in rescuing the Nigerian school children abducted by Boko Haram.
There are a number of US military personnel in Ethiopia, Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Congo and Mali, but it is difficult to establish their numbers.
The known total number of US troops in Africa is 4,680, combined with the classified ones; the actual number could conservatively be anywhere between 4,000- 6,000.
The British army also has a Training Unit in Kenya, BATUK, which provides logistic support to visiting units.There are around 56 permanent staff and reinforcing short tour cohort of another 110 personnel, according to its data.
•The author is a Horn of Africa analyst. Twitter: @qulshtm