By Kristina Wong - 08/15/14 02:50 PM EDT
“As defense spending is reduced in the U.S., U.S. contractors have to look outside of the U.S. for their future,” said Ivor Ichikowitz, executive chairman of the Paramount Group, the largest private defense firm in Africa.
“For the first time in decades, Africa is being discussed in the boardrooms of major US companies,” he told The Hill in a recent interview.
“In the past, it was just too far away, too much headache, not a priority. Today it's a priority and that's exciting,” he said.
Ichikowitz said his firm has already benefited. Just a few weeks ago, Boeing signed an agreement to partner with his South African company, which supplies nations with weapons systems, training and services.
The future of American defense efforts in Africa will be through such partnerships, he said, due to lack of existing U.S.-Africa defense ties.
One of the problems, he said, is the demand was not seen as lucrative.
“The whole of the Africa market doesn't represent one month's turnover in the United States, so it's never been a major priority,” he said.
Another is the skepticism by African nations of U.S. military involvement, which Ichikowitz said has been mostly regime change on the continent.
“The only work that American defense firms have done in Africa is as subcontractors to the U.S. military” instead of with African nations, he said.
However, Ichikowitz said he expects that to change, with terrorism on the rise in parts of the continent.
The White House announced a $5 billion Counter-Terrorism Partnerships Fund in June, aimed at partnering with African militaries to defeat al Qaeda and other extremist groups like Boko Haram.
“Africa and the U.S. are absolutely linked in a common fight against terrorism, and the U.S. fight against terrorism — the global fight against terrorism cannot happen without African governments being involved,” he said.
Ichikowitz said there is also an existing stigma among Western nations against arming African ones, as well as legal limits, that prevent or discourage U.S. defense firms from investing in Africa.
"For some bizarre reason, there's a perception that Africa shouldn't have that kind of capability or that kind of capability shouldn't come out of Africa,” he said.
And the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank do not allow African nations to use monetary assistance to create defensive capability, he said.
But Ichikowitz said time is of the essence, highlighted by the recent instability in Libya — which he said was partially America's fault.
“In Africa, we have a number of countries that are seriously affected by the fallout in Libya,” he said, referring to the international invention to help revolutionary fighters topple leader Moammar Gadhafi in 2011. “I know that the president of Niger, the president of Algeria, [and South African President Jacob Zuma] went to the U.N., went to the West and said, ‘Don't do this, because the downside is that it's going to spiral into uncontrollable chaos,’ and that is exactly what has happened."
The U.S. recently evacuated its embassy in Tripoli amid rising violence from warring groups competing for power, and just a few weeks ago, the group that participated in the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi — Ansar al-Sharia — claimed control over the city.
“So now you have a situation where you have Tuareg fighters armed to the teeth with equipment that they've stolen from Libya, destabilizing northern Mali,” Ichikowitz said.
“Mali is having huge pressure put on it by the international community to deal with these Tuareg fighters," he said. “The IMF and the World Bank are not allowing Mali to use their budget to create capacity in their defense forces so who's fighting in Mali today? The U.S., the French, the Europeans.”
“How is that supporting African democracy? It's not,” he said. “The time has come for the U.S. to engage constructively with African governments, not to defend them, but to support them to acquire their own defensive capability.”