Foreign policy

Media miss the real story of Canada’s new military deployments in Africa

Coverage of Canada’s military engagements lacks necessary context
Photo: Jamie McCaffrey

The media’s foreign affairs motto often seems to be ignorance is bliss. The Toronto Star, for instance, has devoted significant attention to the Trudeau government’s plan to dispatch 600 soldiers to Africa, but has largely ignored the most relevant information.

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In a recent story on the topic, the Star quoted former Royal Military College board member Jack Granatstein saying “[w]herever we go in Africa is not where we should be going and is dangerous” and Canada’s contribution will “achieve nothing.” Countering Granatstein’s Afro-pessimism, the story cited Royal Military College professor Walter Dorn, who asserts that Canadian troops can be deployed as a demonstration of national values and “[t]he image of the peacekeeper is key to the Canadian identity.”

While Canada’s most progressive English daily offers its pages to embarrassingly simplistic pro and con positions, the Star has all but ignored the economic, geopolitical and historical context necessary to judge the merits of deploying 600 troops to the continent. Although the Star published close to twenty stories last year discussing a potential Canadian peacekeeping mission in Africa, only one mentioned Canada’s main mark on the continent and that story simply noted “government officials also considered the extensive business interests of the Canadian mining industry” when deciding not to deploy troops to the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2010.

That’s it? Even though Canada is home to more than a hundred mining companies operating in Africa? Even though Canada’s government has paid for geological education, joint NGO–mining company projects and extractive sector policy initiatives, while opposing debt forgiveness and negotiating foreign investment promotion and protection agreements with a dozen African countries — all to support corporate Canada’s more than $30 billion in mining investments? Even though Mali and the Republic of Congo, the two most-cited possible destinations to send troops, are both home to a significant Canadian mining presence?

Canada’s growing military footprint in Africa

In addition to Canadian mining interests, the Star’s coverage has ignored Canada’s growing military footprint in Africa over the past decade. Working closely with the new United States Africa Command, Ottawa has funded and staffed various military training centres across the continent and Canadian special forces have trained numerous African militaries. The Canadian Forces Operational Support Hub also moved to establish small permanent bases on the East and West coasts of the continent and the Royal Canadian Navy has expanded its African presence, particularly off the coast of Somalia.

Evaluating Canada’s current military and economic role on the continent is a prerequisite for having a proper debate about deploying troops. So is a critical look at past United Nations missions, which has also been absent from the Star’s coverage.

Our checkered past

For example, in 1960, the UN launched a peacekeeping force that delivered a major blow to Congolese democratic aspirations by undermining elected Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba. As detailed in Kevin A. Spooner’s book Canada, the Congo Crisis, and UN Peacekeeping, 1960-64, Canadian soldiers played a significant role in the mission that enabled Lumumba’s assassination by U.S.- and Belgian-backed forces.

In 1992, about 900 Canadian military personnel joined a U.S.-led humanitarian intervention in Somalia, which later came under UN command. While the soldiers who used racial slurs and tortured a teenager to death received significant attention, the economic and geopolitical considerations driving the deployment did not. In 1994, Project Censored Canada declared the impact of oil prospects on the Somalian interventionfour American oil companies had exploration rights to nearly two-thirds of Somalia – the most under-reported Canadian news story of the previous year. Alongside securing hydrocarbons from the ground, planners had an eye on the oil passing near Somalia’s thousand-mile coastline, as whoever controls this territory is well placed to exert influence over oil shipped from the Persian Gulf.

Three years after the Somalia debacle, Canada led a short-lived UN force into eastern Zaire. Presented as a way to protect one million Hutu refugees, it was really designed to dissipate French pressure for a UN force to deal with the refugee crisis and to ensure the French didn’t take command of a force that could impede Rwanda’s invasion of what’s now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Ultimately, most of the UN force was not deployed since peacekeepers would have slowed down or prevented Rwanda, Uganda and their allies from triumphing. That U.S.-backed Rwandan invasion in 1996, along with the subsequent reinvasion in 1998, led to a deadly eight-country war and is the reason UN forces are there today.

But, little context — economic interests, past military involvement or critical history in general — has been presented by the Star.

While it has published two editorials promoting the planned UN mission, Star coverage of the issue demonstrates Canada isn’t ready to deploy troops to Africa. The public is almost entirely ignorant of this country’s role on the continent and our political culture gives politicians immense latitude to pursue self-serving policies there, present them as altruistic and face few questions.

Canadians who want a foreign policy that is a force for good in the world (or at least does no harm) must demand better of our media.

Yves Engler’s latest book is A Propaganda System: how Canada’s government, corporations, media and academia sell war and exploitation. His previous book is Canada in Africa: 300 years of aid and exploitation.

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