Gloves and boots used by those treating ebola drying. Photo: Getty
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Will ebola allow the US to increase its military footprint in Africa?

The initiative may be more ambitious than it first appeared.

President Barak Obama’s decision to send 3,000 US troops to fight the ebola epidemic now ravaging West Africa has been widely welcomed. The help is badly needed. Health workers in the affected countries – Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea – are stretched to breaking point. At least 208 doctors and nurses have died, while some have abandoned their posts. The scale of the threat is enormous, with worst-case scenarios suggesting that more than 500,000 people could be infected before the epidemic is brought under control.

The Obama plan calls for 17 100-bed hospitals to be established and the first troops are now arriving in Liberia to see that this is implemented.

President Obama made his statement at a meeting attended by Guinean President Alpha Conde, while Liberia’s Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and Ernest Bai Koroma of Sierra Leone participated by video-link from their countries. It makes a good deal of sense for the Pentagon to lead the American response. No one else has the capability and aid workers have applauded the plan.

But the initiative may be more ambitious than it first appeared. Little attention has been given to an announcement by the Defence Department, which indicates that something more permanent appears to be being planned.

“US Africa Command will set up a Joint Force Command Headquarters in Liberia to support US military activities and help coordinate expanded US and international relief efforts to fight the West Africa ebola outbreak,” a press statement announced on 16 September. The plan, code-named “Operation United Assistance” is well under way, with a $1bn budget.

The warmth with which the presidential statement was welcomed indicates the severity of the crisis. It is in stark contrast to the reaction most of Africa gave to previous suggestions of an operational headquarters on the continent’s soil. When the US Africa Command – or Africom – was first proposed by Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld in 2006 most Africans were distinctly hostile. A few states – Liberia, Botswana, Mali, and Rwanda – were open to the American proposal. But the continent as a whole, led by Nigeria and South Africa, rejected suggestions that Africom should have an African base.

South Africa’s then-defence minister Mosiuoa Lekota opposed allowing an Africom presence on the continent. Nigerian President Umaru Yar‘adua warned Ellen Johnson Sirleaf against accepting American boots on Liberian soil. As the most powerful state in West Africa the Liberians had little choice but to sit up and take notice.

At the time the suggestion of a US military presence simply ruffled too many African feathers. As a result Africom operates out of the German city of Stuttgart.

The only US base on the continent is Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti. This has been enormously useful to the Pentagon. Its 97 acres house more than 3,000 staff, about a third of whom are special forces. The base allows surveillance of the Red Sea and the Gulf, as well as the Horn of Africa. Drones can be flown from Camp Lemonnier, targeting Islamist groups in Yemen and Somalia.

But over the years US operations in Africa have gradually expanded. Today these include:

The Financial Times suggested that the US has operational capacity in 17 African states, from Algeria to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Admittedly some are rather small, but they are a foothold.

This presence has been established despite the endless repetition of slogans like “African solutions for African Problems”. In part this is because the African Union’s attempts to give this concept teeth have met with so little success. For nearly two decades African leaders have attempted to establish an African Standby Force to respond rapidly to critical situations. The concept was discussed in Harare in 1997 by African Chiefs of Defence Staff and was given the formal go-ahead in July 2002 (pdf). But despite millions having been spent by the US and Britain on planning, logistics and training, there is little to show for the initiative.

Washington already has bases and military agreements across the continent. The ebola epidemic may provide the US with an opportunity to add a permanent base in Liberia to its list of African assets.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. With Paul Holden, he is the author of Who Rules South Africa?

Photo: Getty
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Theresa May's Brexit gamble

The Prime Minister is betting that the economic hit from putting border control first will be delayed and go unnoticed. 

Britain’s European referendum was about immigration. That doesn’t mean the country was divided on it. Had the question been a Yes/No proposition on whether or not immigration was a good thing, it would have between a 78 to 22 per cent rout for Brexit.  As it was, what separated those who opted for a Remain vote over those who backed a Leave one was not whether or not you thought that immigration to Britain should be lowered. Remain did, however, 88 per cent of the vote from the pro-immigration majority.

The real dividing line was between people who thought that bringing down immigration would come at a cost that they were unwilling to pay, and people who thought that it could be done without cost, or, at least, without a cost that they would have to pay. Remain voters, on the whole, accepted both that there would be an economic consequence to reducing immigration generally and they’d pay for it personally, while Leave voters tended only to accept that there was a cost to be paid for it in general.

That leaves politicians in a bind, electorally speaking. There undoubtedly is a majority to be found at the ballot box for reducing immigration and there is an immediate electoral dividend to be reaped from pursuing a Brexit deal that puts border control above everything else.

But as every poll, every election and the entire history of human behaviour shows, the difficulty is that this particular coalition is single use only. It’s very similar to the majority that David Cameron and George Osborne won to cut £12bn out of the welfare bill. People backed it at the ballot box but revolted at the prospect of cuts to tax credits, one of the few ways that the cuts could possibly be achieved. In the end, the cuts were abandoned and George Osborne’s hopes of securing the Conservative leadership were, if not permanently derailed, at least severely delayed.

The nightmare scenario for Theresa May is that the majority for border control dissolves as quickly on impact with reality as the planned cuts to tax credits did.  That’s also the dream for the Liberal Democrats and Greens, who, due to Labour’s embrace of the Conservative approach of abandoning single market membership, are well-placed to benefit if everything comes unravelled.

Who’s right? In both cases, the gamble is clear. There will be a heavy economic price to be paid through leaving the single market. The question is whether that price will come in one big shock or be paid out over a number of years. If the effect of leaving the single market is an immediate fall in people’s standard of living, job losses and negative equity, then Theresa May will find herself in jeopardy. But if the effect is longer-term, and the consequences of Britain’s single market exit are only made clear when in 2030, the Chancellor of the Exchequer has to abandon promises made to pensioners at a time when the pound was worth more than the Euro, then May will be able to reap the electoral dividend of getting Britain’s borders under control.

But there’s a more pessimistic future than either of these. The worst-case scenario isn’t that we all become poorer and the freedom of future governments to do what they want is sharply reduced by its weaker financial consequences. It’s that the economic hit is immediate, noticeable, but that the blame centres not on the incumbent government, but on immigrants and minorities.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.