US and France Begin a Great Game in Africa

PARIS – France and the United States have begun a new race to compete for favors with undemocratic regimes in Africa. The competition is growing particularly in the oil-rich North and West Africa.

The French government announced last month that it is due to sign a military pact with former colony Algeria that would include weapons and technology transfer, training and intelligence sharing.

The agreement was negotiated by French Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie on a visit to Algiers July 19. Alliot-Marie, the first French defense minister to visit Algeria since the end of the bloody war of independence in 1962, said the "historic" agreement will "turn a page" in French-Algerian history.

Foreign minister Michel Barnier visited Algiers earlier in July to discuss new cooperation. Finance minister Nicolas Sarkozy followed his colleagues later in the month to approve a $2.5 billion aid package.

France has invited Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to commemoration of the liberation of south France from Nazi occupation in 1944, in the face of protests from French veterans of the war of independence.

Analysts say these moves seek to secure access to Algerian oil and gas resources to counter similar efforts by the U.S. government.

"The French government wants to counter the diplomatic advances achieved by the Bush government in Algeria in particular, and in West Africa in general," says Francois Gèze, an expert in French-Algerian relations. In an article in Le Monde written with Algerian-born scholar Lahouari Addi who lives in France in exile, Gèze condemned the "French alliance with a criminal regime."

Gèze told IPS that the Algerian government has detained and tortured opposition leaders for more than a decade now. But given the anti-terrorism climate, Algeria represents what "the ‘great’ Western countries wish for in the Arab world" – a government ready to cooperate with the United States whatever its domestic record.

France has been building diplomatic relations across oil-rich West Africa. This includes Gabon ruled by Omar Bongo since 1966, Congo Brazzaville ruled by Denis Sassou-Nguesso who came to power in 1997 following a civil war that cost hundreds of thousands of lives, and Angola where former independence hero José Eduardo dos Santos has been in power since 1979.

In a recent instance of new "cooperation" the French government dealt with dos Santos to protect French citizen Pierre Falcone charged with transfer of weapons to Angola. Dos Santos named Falcone Angolan ambassador to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) headquartered in Paris. The appointment would provide him diplomatic immunity.

It is no coincidence that the United States has been following a similar strategy of supporting military dictators in Africa while seeking access to natural resources in their countries.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell visited Angola and Gabon in 2002 in the first trip ever by such a high-ranking U.S. official to these countries. Last year, U.S. President George W. Bush visited Senegal, Nigeria, Botswana, Uganda and South Africa.

In March this year, the U.S. government invited top ranking military officials of Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Senegal and Tunisia to the U.S. European command headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany. The command center also covers 48 African countries.

The Stuttgart summit covered representation from the Middle East through the Maghreb (Arabic North Africa) to the Gulf of Guinea. This is a region sitting above a giant sea of underground oil.

Two weeks before the March meeting, Gen. Charles F. Wald, deputy commander at Stuttgart had toured Angola, Nigeria, Tunisia, Algeria, Ghana, South Africa and Gabon among other African countries.

"Every place I go in Africa, where we talk about the war on terrorism, there is a resonance and an agreement that we have something in common," Wald said during the visit. The threat extremists pose to democratically elected governments is "universally understood," he said. But of the countries he visited, only South Africa has a democratically elected government.

Earlier this week the U.S. government indicated its interest in the oil-rich Gulf of Guinea in announcing a military cooperation program with Nigeria. Gen. Robert Fogleson, commander of the U.S. Air Force in Europe, said at the announcement: "This region is important to the stability of the United States … because of the petroleum … and so it’s no surprise to me that if the U.S. Navy, the U.S. government wanted to exercise, that they will take the areas that are of great importance to them."

Analysts believe that over the next five years a quarter of non-Gulf oil on the world market will come from sub-Saharan Africa.