Why Africa Is America's Battleground of the Future
The following excerpt is taken from the afterward of Nick Turse's new book, Tomorrow's Battlefield: US Proxy Wars & Secret Ops in Africa (Haymarket, 2015)
JUBA, South Sudan. The camp is a mess of orange muck and open earthen sewers. A single wood plank provides passage over a roughhewn trench. Children peek out from tarp-tents. Older men and women sit in homes of mud-speckled plastic sheeting that become saunas in the midday heat. Young women pick their way through refuse, some with large yellow jerry cans of water balanced atop their heads, others carry their homes in similar fashion—a mess of wooden poles and a folded tarp—as they set out for another camp hoping for better to come.
As I walk down the main thoroughfare of this camp for internal exiles, I suddenly see his smiling face, the one I’d know anywhere. Here, in Juba, the capital of South Sudan amid tens of thousands of people crammed into a fetid encampment visibly thrown together in haste, out of fear and necessity; here, as huge water tanker trucks rumble past and men in camouflage fatigues, toting automatic weapons, stride by; here, in the unlikeliest of places in the heat and swirling dust and charcoal smoke, the air heavy with the scent of squalor, is a face I’ve seen a thousand, or ten thousand, or a million times before. Here in a camp where hopelessness is endemic and despair reigns, is a face that, for so many, was once synonymous with hope itself. It’s a sight that stops me in my tracks. Here, 7,000 miles from my home, Barack Obama is smiling his familiar smile amid the results of a decades-long American project in Africa.
“It was George Bush and the Christian fundamentalists who heard the cry of South Sudan,” Taban Lo Liyong, a South Sudanese writer and literature professor at the University of Juba, told the Los Angeles Times a day after his country’s independence in 2011. “To- day is Barack Obama’s day. We don’t know what he is going to do.”
Only three years ago, the future seemed wide open and hope was the operative word. In fact, all the nation could do then was hope—and dream of better to come.
Dreams and Nightmares
“My dream,” Giel says when I ask about his red T-shirt, which sports a picture of President Obama’s smiling face in front of an American flag. Indeed, the shirt reads: “Obama: My Dream.”
Just what that dream is, however, couldn’t, at this point, be murkier.
When I run into Giel in this squalid United Nations camp, he’s already been living here for more than six months. After fighting broke out in December 2013, he tells me, Dinka soldiers from South Sudan’s army killed his uncle. Neighbors died, too. Indeed, hundreds of men from his tribe, the Nuers, were killed in his Juba neighborhood, while Dinka civilians suffered the price of payback elsewhere in the country. “It’s not safe to go home,” says the fourteen-year-old. “I fear we will be killed.” And so he sits, day after day, for eight to ten hours, at a little stand—a white plastic table under a blue umbrella—on the camp’s main drag, selling bags of bread.
Home for the nine members of Giel’s family sheltering in this camp is a plastic tent. There’s never enough food, he tells me, there are hardly any jobs, and it’s stiflingly hot. When it rains, the camp turns into a sea of mud, you can’t sleep, you can’t do much at all. It’s a metaphor for his country—not that South Sudan needs any metaphors, given the reality at hand. It’s been paralyzed for a year by simmering conflict. “South Sudan has very big problems because of the war,” he says matter of factly.
Deeper into the camp, making my way through a warren of makeshift shanties, tents, and other kinds of homes constructed from tarps and blankets, I call upon Nyadoang. Her cheeks are sunken and her long legs are rail thin. She might be in her twenties, but appears older, weary, world-worn. She doesn’t know her own age. Her twins are four years old. The naked baby boy that she’s alternately breast-feeding and gently jiggling in her hands as if he were a hot potato, was born just a few months before in the dirt floor hovel that is now their home, a tangle of hanging fabric and wooden support poles encased in plastic tarps.
Nyadoang wears a blouse of radiant pink and orange that catches the eye in this bleak setting, but she looks defeated. And with good reason. She fled to the camp when the fighting started and has been stranded here ever since, separated from her husband. Her fractured family seems emblematic of so much in this fractured “nation.” Her twins were born in Sudan in 2010, became South Sudanese the next year, and now find themselves trapped in a camp for internal exiles in a country trapped in a civil war limbo. Her newborn son has never known any other life. A local woman, an employee of the International Rescue Committee, a nongovernmental organization working in the camp, caught the mood of the moment perfectly when she told me, “We were born refugees. Some of our children are now born refugees. It’s really traumatizing. We need a permanent solution.”
But solutions to even basic problems here seem to be in short supply. Nyadoang says she can’t get baby formula and her new- born has a cough, fever, and diarrhea. There are no jobs in the camp and even if there were, who would watch the baby? There’s no money to be had and no end in sight. Trust between the Nuer and Dinka has broken down. Even personal friendships have snapped under the weight of the crisis, she tells me. “How can we live a normal life while the war goes on?”
What does she want for her children, what type of future does she hope for in South Sudan? “We can’t go back home if there’s no peace,” she tells me. “Maybe there is no future.”
This is the legacy of America’s nation-building project in Africa, and of the policies of a president born of an African father, a president whose name was once synonymous with hope for the future.
Over the course of the Obama presidency, American efforts on the continent have become ever more militarized in terms of troops and bases, missions and money. And yet from Libya to the Gulf of Guinea, Mali to this camp in South Sudan, the results have been dismal. Countless military exercises, counterterrorism operations, humanitarian projects, and training missions, backed by billions of dollars of taxpayer money, have all evaporated in the face of coups, civil wars, human rights abuses, terror attacks, and poorly coordinated aid efforts. The human toll is incalculable. And there appears to be no end in sight.
A Calendar with No Tomorrows
Inside a United Nations office elsewhere in South Sudan, I see a box of almost untouched 2014 calendars. I pick one up and casually flip through it. January offers a photo of two statuesque women modeling locally made clothing and jewelry. February showcases the “first batch of South Sudan National Police Service immigration officers.” There’s a photo of a woman with a big, warm smile at the Jebel Market in Juba (April) and men working on building a new passenger boat in Malakal (August). The photo for December 2014 shows a young girl skipping rope. The caption reads: “Child enjoying peace in Nyeel, Unity State.”
It’s quickly clear why the calendars were never put into circulation. In fact, the front cover has this caption: “Building on Peace,” while the next page has a grimly farcical quality to it. “Peace and stability in South Sudan,” it says, “have allowed Africa’s newest nation to turn its attention to development.” In the same light, here in South Sudan and across significant parts of the continent, AFRICOM’s mission statement reads like satire from the Onion. The command, it says in part, promotes “regional security, stability, and prosperity.”
Certainly, there’s precious little security, stability, or prosperity in Giel’s life. Nor does there appear to be any on the horizon for Nyadoang’s newborn. The same could be said for so many youths in Ebola-ravaged neighborhoods of Sierra Leone or Liberia, the war-torn Central African Republic, militia-ridden Libya, fragile Somalia, increasingly unstable Kenya, insurgency-racked Mali, or Boko Haram–terrorized Nigeria to name a few of the nations that have received abundant US military attention over the past decade.
As a species, we do a horrible job of predicting the future. But if the past is any guide, US operations will increase in Africa in the years ahead alongside increased insecurity, instability, and strife. Odds are, much of the former will occur below the radar and much of the latter will go unnoticed by most Americans. But make no mistake, for America in the years ahead, Africa will continue to be tomorrow’s battlefield.
Reprinted with permission from the publisher -- Nick Turse's new book, Tomorrow's Battlefield: US Proxy Wars & Secret Ops in Africa (Haymarket, 2015)