Jerome Starkey, Africa Correspondent
If Africa learns one lesson from the rest of the world, when it comes to American drones it should be that poor, developing countries do not get much of a choice about whether their airspace is invaded by the unmanned killers.
Mali has only just asked America to help to rout the Islamist militants from its northern hinterland — six months after a coup pushed an area the size of France into a deadly power vacuum — but there is anecdotal evidence that the planes were there already.
At least seven people died in June when a convoy linked to the Yahya Abou al-Hammam brigade was bombed, roughly 200km north of Timbuktu. If the plane that killed them was indeed American, then it might well have taken off from Nouakchott, in neighbouring Mauritania, or Ougadougou in neighbouring Burkina Faso. Both cities, according to US reports, have hosted PC12 surveillance planes, used to monitor al-Qaeda-linked groups across the Sahel. Both countries are proof of another truth about drones: once a country starts hosting them, the planes are never confined to that airspace.
When Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, watched US-made drones take off from a military airbase in Uganda in August, she said they should find a way of peering through the tropical canopies to find Africa’s rebel leader Joseph Kony. The leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army is thought to be hiding in any one of at least four central African countries.
The US Air Force uses bases in Ethiopia and Djibouti to fly missions over Somalia. The Reapers stationed in the Seychelles were thought to have been used to target pirates in the Indian Ocean.
There has not been the same public backlash in Africa as there has been in Pakistan or Afghanistan to the use of drones. But nor have there been as many civilian casualties. If the missions increase, it is inevitable that the death toll will follow.
That is something for which any government must be very wary of wishing.