When the United States began regular drone surveillance flights from the Republic of Chad over the Lake Chad Basin, the aim was ostensibly in support of the goal of the BringBackOurGirls campaign.
But the humanitarian goal of finding the Chibok girls has since proved a convenient smokescreen to pursue larger interests of a more strategic nature in Africa’s Sahel zone, such as beating the Chinese to the newly discovered oil and gas fields of the Lake Chad Basin.
Conservative estimates of the Lake Chad oil reserves range up to 3 billion barrels of crude oil and over 14 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
Long after the short-lived social media frenzy of the BringBackOurGirls campaign, US drones continued operating surveillance flights equipped with sophisticated imaging technology over the new Lake Chad Basin oil fields, apparently having abandoned the initial hypocritical posturing that the missing black African schoolgirls were the primary reason for the deployment of 80 US troops and sophisticated surveillance technology to Chad.
The Pentagon has since followed up the establishment of a military presence in Chad with another drone base in the Republic of Niger with the deployment of 100 US troops.
Why has the US been quietly but actively establishing a network of surveillance hubs and military bases, and consolidating political and military alliances with governments across Africa’s Sahel region?
The standard explanatory narrative in response to the question focuses on the increasing threat of Islamic terrorism. But a missing dimension to the standard analysis, of greater long-term significance to US planners, is meeting the challenge of the increasing influence of the Chinese in the resource-rich African continent.
The US has in the last few years been quietly implementing an African version of its “Pivot to Asia” in response to resource-access competition with China.
One can examine how the US and France have been coordinating their foreign policy goals in the francophone African Sahel to the growing consternation of anglophone Nigeria due to the country’s vulnerability to the fallout of destabilizing superpower geopolitics in the Sahel.
US-China rivalry in Africa
Clear signs are emerging that the geopolitical strategy of the Western allies-the US, UK and France-in Africa is reverting to the old Cold War era policy of containment of the spread of influence of its superpower rival through exclusive alliances and disruptive interventionist policies targeted at those that insist on an independent policy course.
The only difference this time around is that the superpower competitor is not the USSR but China.
The Western allies woke up late to the threat of the increasing influence of the Chinese in Africa.
But having realized that the Chinese have stolen a match on them on the continent, they are scrambling to implement a containment policy hinged on seeking exclusive defence alliances with vulnerable African leaders and engineering the political destabilization of those that have either fallen into the Chinese orbit or are unwilling to commit to an alliance with the West that excludes China.
African countries have been experiencing, for the first time in recent history, high GDP growth rates due to heavy Chinese investment.
The recent pattern of rapid economic growth of African countries in partnership with China has helped expose the West’s longstanding and deliberate policy of marginalization of African economies in the international scheme of things.
The growing fortunes of major African economies such as Ghana, Tanzania and Nigeria, in partnership with China, has become a cause for concern among US planners, sparking fears that the Chinese are poised to take over the continent entirely.
The recent US-Africa Leaders Summit that took place in Washington at the insistence of the Obama administration was part of the new US push to implement a policy of containment of the Chinese in Africa.
Besides the goal of promoting the US “war on terror,” the long-term goal of containing the spread of China’s influence in Africa informed the move by the George W Bush administration to establish an Africa Command (AFRICOM).
However, the motive of keeping the Chinese out underlying the US government’s proposal of AFRICOM defense pacts soon became obvious to the African countries that the US approached with proposals that involve US military presence in the countries.
While some African countries accepted the AFRICOM arrangement based on an assessment of their interests with regard to internal threats and regional rivalries, others, based on the lessons of the Cold War era, chose to follow a nonalignment policy in the emerging US-China rivalry in Africa.
One can notice the emerging regional rivalry between Nigeria and its northeastern neighbor Chad as a case study of two African nations that chose opposite policies in the escalating US-China rivalry in Africa.
While Nigeria has preferred a nonalignment policy, Chad’s Idriss Deby enthusiastically exploited the vacuum created by Nigeria’s rejection of the AFRICOM defense pact to seek closer political and military ties with the West.
Nigeria was one of the first countries the US approached with the “keep China out” AFRICOM proposal. Nigeria was seen as strategic to US interests on the continent as a regional power and top oil- and gas-producing OPEC country.
The US government approached Nigeria with a plan to move AFRICOM’S headquarters from Kelley Barracks in Stuttgart, Germany, to Nigeria.
Nigeria’s unenthusiastic response to the US proposal and the country’s staunch opposition to AFRICOM establishing a presence in the West African region caused considerable concern among US planners.
It prompted Bush to invite the country’s former executive president, the late Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, to the White House in 2007 with a plan to pressure him to accept the proposal.
President Yar’Adua appeared to cave in to pressure when he announced, following the White House meeting with Bush, that Nigeria was ready to partner with AFRCIOM.
But following the predictable uproar from Nigerian civil society, Yar’Adua denied that his statement in Washington meant that he had approved the establishment of AFRICOM in the country.
Basically, the mistake the Americans made which gave the Chinese the opportunity to gain a foothold in Africa was hawking intrusive defence pacts focused selfishly on the West’s geopolitical interests at a time that Africans were anxious to attract foreign investment to the continent.
Washington’s prioritization of the militarization of the continent convinced Africans that the continent’s economic prosperity was not the priority of the West.
The Chinese, on the other hand, came with what Africans wanted-investments in place of the West’s nebulous defence pacts.
When it became clear to US planners that Nigeria would not be persuaded to allow a US military presence in the country’s oil-rich Niger Delta region, they began looking around for an alternative.
Soon they found the perfect replacement for Nigeria in Chad’s Deby, a former rebel leader whose sense of insecurity in power after years of fighting off challengers and insurgencies made him the perfect candidate to foist a military defence pact on.
The recent ceasefire talks between Nigeria and Boko Haram, brokered by Chadian President Idriss Deby, with the backing of influential local Chadian and Nigerian politicians with a vested interest in the Chadian oil industry, has focused attention on how the discovery of significant oil and gas reserves in Nigeria’s northeastern Lake Chad Basin is contributing to instability in the region.
To fully understand the nature of the relationship between local Nigerian politicians and their counterparts on the Chadian side it is helpful to learn that the region is home to Kanuri clans who have common cultural and historical links despite being separated by international borders drawn by European colonialists.
Rampant corruption in the Nigerian state, coupled with the diversity of its 170 million people, means that local Borno politicians have greater ties with their ethnic kinsmen across the border than with Nigerian government officials hundreds of miles away in Abuja.
The economic devastation of the Lake Chad region due to the shrinking of Lake Chad, the economic mainstay of the region’s fishing communities, also means that the discovery of oil in the region is seen by local political power brokers as an opportunity to seek independence from the weak central government in Abuja, regardless of the interests of the poor masses of their own people.
The complicating impact of the regional geopolitics of oil is that although the Nigerian government has not revealed the terms of its recent ceasefire talks with Boko Haram.
It could be fairly expected that Boko Haram will make huge settlement demands based not only on the precedent case of the Niger Delta militants who negotiated an amnesty deal with the Nigerian state but also on the fact of the vast oil resources at stake.
No doubt, issues of pay settlement will play a major role in the talks. But it is unlikely that the Nigerian government will be able to accept the demands, thus paving the way for the perpetuation of the conflict to the detriment of the Nigerian side and the advantage of Chad, as is the case in the Central African Republic.
If negotiations fail, the Chadians will, at least, be able to say that they made an effort to help secure a resolution of the conflict and that the fact that they are benefiting from a prolonged conflict in Nigeria’s Borno Chad Basin region is a situation they cannot help.