In a Reversal, Nigeria Wants U.S. Africa Command Headquarters in Africa
On April 27, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, in a virtual meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, requested that the United States move the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) headquarters from Stuttgart, Germany to Africa. The request marks a reversal of official Nigerian opposition—first made public twelve years ago—to AFRICOM plans to move to the continent. The shift likely reflects the conclusion that the security situation in West Africa and Nigeria is out of control, spurring a willingness to consider options hitherto unacceptable. Buhari argued that AFRICOM's headquarters should be closer to the theater of operations. He also seemed to imply greater U.S. involvement in West African security, including a kinetic dimension in the context of greater Western support for West Africa's response to its security threats. The statement released by President Buhari’s office following the meeting did not indicate whether the president offered Nigeria to host the AFRICOM headquarters.
When President George W. Bush established AFRICOM in 2007, a military-civilian hybrid command in support of Africa, African official reaction was largely hostile, seeing the effort as "neo-colonialist." The Nigerian government took the lead in persuading or strong-arming other African states against accepting the AFRICOM headquarters, which was thereupon established at Stuttgart, Germany, already the headquarters of the European Command.
However, AFRICOM's effective response to humanitarian crises, such as quickly establishing field hospitals in Ebola-affected areas in 2014, has ameliorated—at least somewhat—African hostility. More immediately, West Africa especially is facing security challenges beyond the ability of African states to control on their own. France has been the most important outside force against jihadi terrorism, but French involvement in seemingly never-ending military operations is unpopular at home, and President Emmanuel Macron has raised the specter of a drawdown or withdrawal in West Africa as he prepares for potentially strong opposition in the 2022 French presidential election.
Up to the death of dictator Idriss Déby on April 27, Chad fielded the most effective West African fighting force against various jihadi groups and worked closely with France, the United States, and other partners. However, post-Déby, Chad is becoming a security unknown, with indigenous insurrections far from quelled and opposition demonstrations to the succession in the capital, N'Djamena. In Nigeria, in some quarters at least, panic has emerged over the erosion of security, and calls on the Buhari administration to seek outside help have been growing.
In addition to opposing AFRICOM in the first place, the Nigerian military authorities have been largely uncooperative with the U.S. military. Hence, U.S. military involvement in Nigeria beyond limited training operations is minimal, and the country does not host any American defense installations. Successive Nigerian governments have wanted to purchase sophisticated American military equipment but have rejected U.S. oversight. In fact, Nigerian purchases of U.S. military material have been rare, despite their high-profile, ultimately successful purchase of twelve A-29 Super Tucanos—sophisticated aircraft.
If opposition to AFRICOM is now muted, it has not gone away. Former Nigerian Senator Shehu Sani, an outspoken critic of the United States, characterized Buhari's volte-face as "an open invitation for recolonisation of Africa." In his view, Nigeria should seek only "technical assistance." Buhari is promising much better multilateral cooperation; it remains to be seen whether he can deliver.
From an American perspective, moving AFRICOM's headquarters after fourteen years in Stuttgart would be a major undertaking. The defense review, now underway, will likely include the AFRICOM headquarters location issue. However, should the AFRICOM headquarters move, it is unlikely—if not impossible—that it would be to Africa, with its logistical challenges. Some in the U.S. Congress support moving AFRICOM's headquarters to the United States as a cost-effective alternative. For example, South Carolina's senators, both Republican, have advocated moving it to Charleston, the site of large U.S. military installations.