Africa News blog

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Media values on the high seas

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It’s a cynical adage of British journalism that one dead Briton is, in headline terms at least, worth several dozen foreign fatalities.

A similar law seems to be in play with the latest hostage drama on the high seas off Somalia, where four pirates have been holding an American sea captain in a life boat under the watchful eye of the USS Bainbridge.

At the moment, other pirates back at their bases in Somalia are holding 18 vessels and 267 sailors, the fruits of several months of attacks on ships off the coast.

The media in the United States has focussed fully on this latest story – a drama with just one American at its centre – while showing rather less interest in the hundreds of other hostages, none of whom is thought to be American.

Is U.S. Africom good or bad for Africa?

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Residents of Tizimizi greet members of the US Forces upon their arrival in their area in November 2006The new U.S. command for Africa began independent operations on Wednesday, after being carved out of three other Pentagon units previously responsible for the continent. President George W. Bush originally wanted Africom to be based in Africa, and Liberia has offered to host it. But the plan met with considerable hostility on the continent, especially from big powers South Africa and Nigeria and oil giants Algeria and Libya. Many ordinary Africans were also cynical, believing Africom would be a cover for Washington to counter growing Chinese influence and control vital oil supplies from West Africa — expected to provide 25 percent of U.S. needs by 2015.

The hostility forced Washington to rethink its plans and Africom, expected to reach its full complement of 1,300 by the end of next year, began work from Stuttgart, home of the existing European command, although officials clearly expect to open a base in Africa sometime in the future. It also pushed U.S. officials to emphasise that there was no hidden agenda, that Africom would not threaten the sovereignty of any nations and that a base would not be built in Africa without the full agreement of potential host nations. They also said half of Africom’s leadership would be composed of civilian agencies including the State Department. Africom’s stated aim is to help African countries face everything from natural disasters to terrorism and its targets will including drug trafficking, arms smuggling and the kind of piracy now plaguing the waters off Somalia. Experts say U.S. forces have been cooperating quietly for years with African armies, particularly in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel where rebel and al Qaeda-affiliated groups operate. They say Africom got a bad press initially because it was associated with heavy-handed U.S. policy in Somalia and as part of the U.S.-led ”War on Terror”, but now Pentagon officials are treading more carefully, realising how sensitive Africans are about suggestions Washington is trying to dominate.

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