Controversies and Realities of Foreign Military Activity in Africa

By Theo Neethling

Post-colonial foreign military activity on the African continent has always been a matter of controversy. In fact, foreign political involvement is often equated with neocolonialism. When The Economist recently carried an article which argued, “widespread ethnic killings” could “break up Ethiopia” and that “outside powers should try, with a determined mix of pressure and persuasion” to prevent a catastrophe and “not abandon the country”, many online readers responded fiercely. One reader – ostensibly from Africa – stated, “[o]utside powers continually try to intervene in various country internal matters [sic],” while another saw the matter of internal conflict in Ethiopia as “a colonizers’ dream”. In another instance, a reader responded, “We don’t need your bloody hands… The era of neocolonialism and imperialism has come to an end!!”1

Yet, foreign security operations on the African continent are conducted on a daily basis – fully supported by many African governments who are lacking the institutional capacity in their armed forces to deal with security threats or the capacity to secure their regimes. In September 2020, media reports revealed that a covert Kenyan paramilitary team – trained, armed and supported by US and British intelligence functionaries – was responsible for the unconstitutional killing of terror suspects in night-time raids. It was then claimed that a covert Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) programme had been running in Kenya since 2004 without any public scrutiny, while MI6 (the British secret intelligence service) played a key role in identifying, tracking and fixing the location of targets. These reports once again sparked a debate on the reality of, and the need for, foreign security operations in Africa.2


One of the most striking contemporary examples of foreign military involvement on the African continent is the case of Mozambique, specifically pertaining to the emergence and prevalence of Islamism in the northern parts of Mozambique. Since the outbreak of conflict in 2017, the government of Mozambique fell short in dealing with the security challenges, as the country’s armed forces suffered from several political and institutional problems. In brief, since the end of the 16-year civil war in 1992, the Mozambican army was left without capacity and high-quality military equipment, which was either sold by political elites or stolen or abandoned. For many years, successive governments in Maputo essentially failed to invest in the armed forces and this left the government with no choice but to agree to the deployment of the controversial Wagner group, a Russian military contractor. Two months after Wagner’s deployment, in November 2019, the contractor withdrew from Mozambique, ostensibly over a disagreement with Mozambican troops concerning operational issues. Soon after the withdrawal, the Mozambican government decided to hire another foreign company when they approached Colonel Lionel Dyck, a retired Zimbabwean military leader who owns the South African-based Dyck Advisory Group, which assisted Frelimo in fighting the militant opposition movement, Renamo, during the Mozambican civil war in the 1980s. Currently, forces from no fewer than 20 countries from Africa, Europe and North America are directly involved in northern Mozambique in efforts to combat the insurgency, whether in the form of military operations or of training Mozambican military personnel.3


The above-mentioned operations coincide with the fact that several African governments are currently hosting foreign militaries and bases. Despite ongoing concerns of the African Union (AU) Peace and Security Council about the many foreign military bases on the continent, a host of bilateral agreements between AU member states and foreign powers underlie the spread of foreign military forces across the continent. In this regard, at least 13 foreign powers have a substantial military presence on the continent, with the United States and France at the forefront of conducting operations on African soil.4

Currently, the United States has more than 6,000 military personnel on rotational deployment in Africa, carrying out joint operations with African forces against Muslim extremists or jihadists. Publicly, the Pentagon maintains that the United States has almost no physical footprint in Africa with only a single base on the continent, namely Camp Lemonnier, in Djibouti. Yet, on any given day, several thousand US troops operate from some of the 27 outposts on the African continent, including 15 “enduring locations” and 12 less permanent “contingency locations”. The highest concentrations are in the Sahel and the Horn of Africa.5

Currently, the United States has more than 6,000 military personnel on rotational deployment in Africa, carrying out joint operations with African forces against Muslim extremists or jihadists.

Like the United States, France is one of more than 10 foreign countries that have either deployed military forces or established military bases in several African countries where they are fighting extremists. Until recently, before President Emmanuel Macron decided to reduce his country’s military presence in the Sahel, more than 5,000 French military personnel with dozens of aircraft and hundreds of armoured vehicles were deployed across Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad.6


The presence of foreign military forces in Africa is not limited to Western powers. China has been particularly active with its military presence in the Horn of Africa, especially since 2008 with its involvement in the international anti-piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden. Since then, China has maintained an ongoing naval anti-piracy presence in the Horn of Africa and the Gulf of Aden. From 2008 to 2018, the Chinese navy deployed 26,000 military personnel in a variety of maritime security operations.7

In 2017, China inaugurated its first overseas military base in Djibouti. Following the establishment of Camp Lemonnier in 2003, the US expeditionary base in Djibouti, which was established alongside bases belonging to the French, Italian, Spanish, German and Japanese militaries,8 China has developed a military facility to host several thousand Chinese troops and serve as storage for fuel, weapons and equipment, as well as a maintenance facility for helicopters and both commercial and military ships. The Chinese military base in Djibouti is furthermore intended to be instrumental in supporting five mission areas pertaining to:  

  • counter-piracy in the Gulf of Aden; 
  • intelligence collection on other countries; 
  • non-combat evacuation operations in East Africa where Chinese citizens might need assistance; 
  • international peacekeeping operations where Chinese soldiers are deployed; and 
  • counterterrorism operations.9

India is another Asian country of relevance and is especially known for an increased naval presence in the Indian Ocean, with three ongoing deployments in the western Indian Ocean.  The first is an anti-piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden, the second is a Gulf mission, which patrols the northern Indian Ocean and the Strait of Hormuz, and the third is a mission focusing on the Seychelles, Madagascar, Mauritius and the southern Indian Ocean. India has sought to establish a network of military facilities across the Indian Ocean to counter China’s rising military footprint in the region, as well as to protect its commercial sea lanes from piracy. This has started with a naval monitoring base in northern Madagascar while India also plans the establishment of 32 coastal radar surveillance stations with sites in the Seychelles, Mauritius and other locations outside Africa. In view of this, India can rightly be described as a rising power in East African waters.10

Middle Eastern countries with a notable military presence in Africa are Turkey and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Turkey joined the international counter-piracy task force off the Somali coast in 2009 and opened a military base in Mogadishu, Somalia in 2017. The purpose is to train recruits for the Somali National Army and to support the Somali navy and coastguard. The UAE has a military base in Eritrea since 2015, which comprises a military airfield with aircraft shelters and a deepwater naval port. The base was especially used in operations against opposition forces in Yemen.11


What should be clear from the above is that the Horn of Africa is the epicentre of foreign military presence in Africa. The motivation for deploying foreign military forces is largely related to the protection of commercial interests, securing friendly regimes and projecting influence in a landscape where rising global competition among global powers is the order of the day. In addition, the countering of security threats to international peace and security, particularly posed by terrorist groups and pirates in the eastern parts of the continent, also serves as an important driver of foreign security and military activities in Africa.12

Despite the many public voices regularly going up against foreign military involvement in African states, several African governments are, in fact, keen to host foreign military forces as bilateral agreements with major powers generating income for African states. This explains why several African governments are willing to work outside the security frameworks of their regional economic communities,13 such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) or the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS). On the positive side, the presence of foreign military forces has certainly played a significant role in reducing the capacity of terrorists such as al-Shabaab in eastern Africa and jihadists from northern Mali. At the same time, it is often argued that there is a downside to the presence of foreign forces. The African security landscape is overcrowded with a multiplicity of foreign security and military activities – endeavours that are often in competition to influence continental responses to challenges relating to conflict hotspots on the continent. In recent years, competition among some of the major powers has been exacerbated by the increasing presence of Asian powers and especially the expanding Chinese presence in Djibouti, something that has sparked growing fears in Japanese and Indian political and security circles about Chinese power projection.14


There is a lack of continental consensus among African leaders and, at the level of the AU, on the modalities for regulating foreign security and military activities.

Lastly, foreign military involvement cannot be divorced from two major governance problems on the continent. Several home-grown insurgencies in African states underscore the disconnect between military mandates and related capacities on the one hand, and actual security threats on the other. In only a limited number of countries are there effective and well-trained militaries capable of carrying out combined (inter-military) operations and providing logistical support for a conflict. Moreover, in several – or many – African states, irregular forces are posing serious threats and are better equipped and more mobile than the armed forces of their governments. Furthermore, irregular forces often have better knowledge of the military landscapes than the official armed forces. Even in the case of Africa’s second-largest economy, Nigeria, Boko Haram and the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) have been defying Nigerian armed forces for several years. There is no doubt that African security forces must become demonstrably more competent and professional than they are at the moment. This requires the leadership of Africa to identify clear missions for their security forces and integrate these into their strategic planning processes and resource provision, and train their forces to meet the security challenges they face.15

Another major problem is that there is a lack of continental consensus among African leaders and, at the level of the AU, on the modalities for regulating foreign security and military activities. As long as there are gaps and glaring weaknesses in Africa’s ability to respond to armed conflict and to utilise the African Standby Force (or regional components of it) effectively against terrorists, foreign militaries and intelligence services will find ways and spaces to operate on the African continent. These matters will have to be addressed before African states will – individually and collectively – heed the concerns of the AU Peace and Security Council about extensive foreign military involvement on the continent.16 

This article was first published on May 20, 2022.

About the Author

Theo Neethling holds a DLitt et Phil in International Politics through the University of South Africa and is Professor in the Department of Political Studies and Governance at the University of the Free State, South Africa. His research interests concern Africa’s international relations, South Africa’s foreign relations, security and politics in the African context, and African futures.


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10. Defence Review. “Foreign military activity increasing in the Horn of Africa”. 15 May 2019. Available at: (accessed 10 November 2021).
11. Atta-Asamoah, A. “Proceed with caution: Africa’s growing foreign military presence”. ISS Today, 27 August 2019. Available at: (accessed 10 November 2021); Defence Review. op. cit.
12. Atta-Asamoah, A. op. cit.
13. Ibid.
14. AU Peace and Security Council Report. Questions over foreign military presence in Africa. 27 August 2017. Available at: (accessed 10 November 2021).
15 .Africa Centre for Strategic Studies. “Obstacles to military professionalism”. 26 December 2019. Available at: (accessed 11 November 2021).
16. Atta-Asamoah, A. op. cit.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The World Financial Review.