NATO Is and Always Was a Threat to African Independence

Yves Engler
Protests in Sebha over election postponement

Another election postponement in Libya is a reminder that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is a threat to Africans.

Last month, Libyan presidential elections were postponed partly out of fear that Saif al-Islam Gaddafi would win. He is the son of former strongman Muammar Gaddafi who was overthrown and killed in the 2011 NATO-led war. Libya has yet to recover from the war that damaged infrastructure and led to slave markets.

In Slouching Towards Sirte: NATO’s War on Libya and Africa, Concordia University professor Maximilian Forte argues the invasion of Libya was designed to eliminate an important supporter of African unity and critic of Western militarism on the continent. Gaddafi spearheaded opposition to the US Africa Command, successfully undermining Washington’s ability to gain “broad African support for basing the AFRICOM headquarters on the continent.” A 2009 cable from the US Embassy in Tripoli called “the presence of non-African military elements in Libya or elsewhere on the continent” almost a “neuralgic issue” for Gaddafi.

The African Union aggressively opposed NATO’s bombing of Libya. A week before the bombing began, the African Union Peace and Security Council put forward a five-point plan to resolve the conflict. It was rejected by the NATO powers. Subsequent pleas by African Union officials were also ignored.

A Canadian general led the NATO bombing campaign; seven CF-18 fighter jets participated and two Canadian naval vessels patrolled the Libyan coast. CF-18s dropped at least 700 bombs on Libyan targets during the six-month war.

During the war a 20-ship NATO flotilla bombed Libya and enabled opposition rebels to bring in arms. Over the past 15 years NATO naval ships have maintained a patrol off the continent, particularly near the Horn of Africa. As part of what’s been dubbed Africa’s “encirclement by U.S. and NATO warships”, HMCS Athabaskan led Operation Steadfast Jaguar 06 in the Gulf of Guinea. A dozen warships and 7,000 troops participated in the exercise, the first ever carried out by NATO’s Rapid Response Force.

The next year Standing Naval Maritime Group 1 of NATO traveled 23,000 kilometres around the continent. HMCS Toronto participated in the five-month trip that was the first NATO fleet to circumnavigate Africa.

Oil largely motivated operations off Nigeria’s coast. Nigeria’s Business Day described NATO’s presence as “a show of force and a demonstration that the world powers are closely monitoring the worsening security situation in the [oil-rich] Niger Delta.” A Canadian spokesperson gave credence to this interpretation of their activities in a region long dominated by Shell and other Western oil corporations. When the Standing Naval Maritime Group 1 warships patrolled the area Canadian Lieutenant Commander Angus Topshee told the CBC that “it’s a critical area of the world because Nigeria produces a large amount of the world’s light crude oil, and so when anything happens to that area that interrupts that flow of oil, it can have repercussions for the entire global economy.”

More broadly, the objective of circumnavigating the continent was to develop situational knowledge of the various territorial waters, especially Nigeria and Somalia. How knowledge of countries’ coastlines was to be used was not made entirely clear, but it certainly wasn’t to strengthen their sovereignty. “During the voyage,” according to a story in Embassy, “the fleet sailed at a distance of 12 to 15 miles off the African coast, just beyond the limits of sovereign national waters. The NATO fleet did not inform African nations it would soon be on the horizon. This, Lt.-Cmdr. Topshee says, was an intentional move meant to ‘keep options open.’ ‘International law is built on precedent,’ he says. ‘So if NATO creates a precedent where we’re going to inform countries, we’re going to operate off their coastline, over time that precedent actually becomes a requirement’.” To help with the legal side of the operations a lawyer circumnavigated the continent with HMCS Toronto. Reportedly, the Nigerians did not appreciate NATO’s aggressive tactics. Topshee described the Nigerians as “downright irate” when the fleet approached. “There was real concern they might take action against us.”

For HMCS Toronto’s Captain Stephen Virgin, the circumnavigation was largely about preparing NATO forces for a future invasion. “These are areas that the force might have to go back to some day and we need to operate over there to get an understanding of everything from shipping patterns to how our sensors work in those climates.”

This interest in Africa is not new. NATO was birthed partly to enforce African subjugation. Established in 1949, NATO strengthened European colonial authority (and brought it under a US-led system). After Europe’s second great war, the colonial powers were economically devastated while anti-colonial movements could increasingly garner support from the Soviet Union and Mao’s China (or Egypt and Cuba, as was the case for Algeria and Angola respectively). The international balance of forces had swung away from the colonial powers. To maintain their colonies, the European powers increasingly depended on North American diplomatic, military and financial assistance.

NATO largely accepted European colonial authority and in the years just after its founding, Canadian officials repeatedly connected the North Atlantic alliance to the defence of the imperial status quo. (See my Lester Pearson’s Peacekeeping for details.) In 1956 NATO established a Committee for Africa and in June 1959 NATO’s North Atlantic Council, the organization’s main political decision-making body, warned that the communists would take advantage of African independence to the detriment of Western political and economic interests. The Nigerian Labour Party’s 1964 pamphlet The NATO Conspiracy in Africa documents that organization’s military involvement on the continent from bases to naval agreements.

NATO shaped Canada’s diplomatic position towards decolonization. In 1960, leading Canada-Africa scholar Doug Anglin noted, “the fact that Canada is allied in NATO with all the great colonial powers has compelled her to consider the significance of the breakup of their empires in Africa for the strength and unity of purpose of the alliance.”

Through NATO Canada was militarily engaged on the continent. A Royal Canadian Air Force squadron operated from US bases in Morocco until just after its 1956 independence. Additionally, Canadian soldiers participated in NATO exchanges with militaries engaged in Africa.

More significantly, Canada delivered a huge amount of weaponry to the colonial powers through NATO’s Mutual Aid Program. Between 1950 and 1958, Ottawa donated $1,526,956,000 ($8 billion today) in “aid” to NATO countries. The deliveries included anti-aircraft guns, military transport vehicles, ammunition, minesweepers, communications and electronic equipment, armaments, engines and fighter jets. Three quarters of all Canadian Mutual Aid was military equipment and supplies (the rest was mainly training). The Canadian Way of War explains: “During the early 1950s, Canada outfitted several Dutch, Belgian, and Italian divisions with old British pattern equipment. Ottawa also initiated a smaller Mutual Aid program for others in Europe. This eventually included newly manufactured munitions. And there were many NATO military personnel trained in Canada.”

Through the NATO Air Training Plan, the Royal Canadian Air Force trained 5,500 pilots and navigators from ten NATO countries. It was primarily British and French pilots who received instruction over Canada’s vast terrain but there were also trainees from Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands, Norway, Turkey and Portugal. This program was a successor to the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. During World War II, tens of thousands of British, Belgian and French pilots trained in Canada.

Canadian-trained airmen armed with Canadian weaponry likely participated in the murderous suppression of Algerian, Cameroon, Congolese and Kenyan independence movements. In the late 1960s and early 70s Portugal’s use of NATO weaponry to maintain its African colonies generated significant controversy amongst Canadian supporters of African liberation.

While militarists claim NATO is designed to defend its members, the alliance has long been a tool of colonialism and imperialism. There is no doubt it is a threat to Africans and other countries that wish to have real independence.