Bootstrapping in Africa
- By Kevin Fogarty
- Apr 21, 2008
The new Africa Command is evaluating ways that it might promote better security on the continent. One option being examined involves information-sharing via software.
There are, however a few catches. The countries for which the software is intended don’t use anything like it. They might not havethe technological infrastructure to run it, or the budget to afford the communications networks required to make using the software practical.
The company behind the software initiative is Sentek Consulting, a seven-year-old company with 40 employees and offices in SanDiego and Falls Church, Va. The company’s management team is predominantly made up of former Navy officers, including a retired rear admiral and a former special warfare officer. Sentek is building a classic military command-and-control system designed for developing nations in Africa.
The idea is to give developing countries information sharing capabilities similar to that of U.S. law enforcement agencies. The system — a communications portal based on the open-source JBoss Web server, portals, Web services and other common Internet applications — is designed to centralize information required for the effective administration of a large country, across everything from fiberoptic connections to the slowest cell-phone data networks.
The eventual goal is to build an Interpol-like critical-report capability in all the countries in the African Union. But before Sentek can aspire tothat goal, it first has to convince an African country to let Sentek install and develop the prototype in a practical, cost-effective system.
“This is risky; we admit that,” said Eric Basu, president of Sentek Consulting. “To go someplace like this without a clear product andclear understanding of the costs involved is not a very good business model.” But there is a market in Africa, he said, for systems that can help civilian governments run more effectively by eliminating delays in the dissemination of critical information from the provinces. “Thereis money in Africa, you just have to be pretty clear what you’re planning to do for people and what the benefit will be,” said Basu, who has a master’s in business administration and is a special-forces commander in the Naval Reserve.
“There is so much of a need down there [Africa] in terms of countering what I’m sure is a growing threat — not only [the war on terrorism],but the threat of drought and famine and locusts and AIDS and TB, and a whole host of threats that someone is going to haveto do something about.”
Sentek is counting on the newly created U.S. Africa Command to help develop, evangelize and eventually sell the command software.Africom is evaluating Sentek’s work as one of the resources it can offer to assist African nations, Basu said. Africom, which was created out of the U.S. European Command in February 2007, is scheduled to become a full-fledged unified commandin October. It is charged with collaborating with African nations and nongovernmental organizations to increase regionalsecurity to prevent war.
Africom’s public affairs officers did not reply to several requests for interviews or confirmation of Sentek’s approach.
“Africa has had more than its share of military conflicts,” said Todd Moss, U.S. deputy undersecretary of State responsible for economicaffairs and technological development in Africa. “When we deal with our African partners, we’re really thinking about three main priorities,” Moss said. “The first is to help build up their military and defense capacities, to help professionalize their militaries so they are defending their countries rather than abusing their own citizens. The second is to help develop African peacekeeping capabilities — battalions that have been in place in resolving seven of the eight major conflicts over the last few years. The third is to help those countries control their borders to reduce a range of transnational threats: drug trafficking, illegal arms trafficking,terrorism.”
Although the kind of command-and-control systems Sentek is pitching would play a role in promoting that kind of stability and unified command of national resources, Moss is unaware of Sentek’s involvement or any high-priority requests from African nations looking for national collaboration or information-sharing systems specifically.
“There are specific request lists with any peacekeeping operations, but our discussions tend to be more along the lines of new roads, telecommunications infrastructures, that kind of thing,” Moss said.Pitching sophisticated computer systems to countries with a greater need for paved roads, increases in the number of phone towers and long-distance microwave relays to increase telecommunications capacity — not to mention health and economic aid — is a peculiarlyU.S. misunderstanding of the needs of Africans, said Mark Malan, peacebuilding program officer at the relief organization Refugees International.
“We had a bunch of U.S. officers and trainers come to help train peacekeepers, and they were talking about the 3-D battlespace and mobilized infantry, and we were struggling to field a couple of HIV-riddled battalions for peacekeeping in the Congo,” said Malan, whowent to work for African peacekeeping groups after his retirement from two decades in the South African military.
The theoretical benefit of good command-and-control software would certainly help, but few African countries are equipped to takeadvantage of it, Malan said. Even Nigeria, whose economic and military dominance and comparative technical sophistication made itSentek’s obvious first choice for a potential customer, is far too inconsistent in both its infrastructure and the skills of its people.
“The best and brightest Africans are abroad, working with the [International Monetary Fund] or the [United Nations] or the WorldBank,” Malan said. “Back at home you’d need the human resources — the people who are capable of understanding a new way to dothings or manage the software, and you just don’t have it. “Nigeria is definitely the superpower in the region, but it’s also the most corrupt,” Malan said. “If this software had some incorruptibility built in, then that would be something; but I don’t really see it.”
The prototype Sentek built for Africom does have a range of information controls built in — to satisfy the requirements of governments that are far more controlling about their information than the corporations or developers that typically work on open-sourceapplications, Basu said.
“You have to be sensitive to that need for control and conservatism,” he said. “Not everyone is as excited about sharing information on open source as people on Twitter.” Sentek is building the applications using grants authorized under Section 1206 of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2006, which authorizes the Defense Department to spend $300 million to train and equip foreign governments for operations to increase their own political stability or counterterrorism groups.
The blueprint and outline of the system is complete, and Sentek has tested some aspects of it — such as the ability to use cell phones,Google Earth and the Internet to exchange pictures of eight different areas in Niger, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Ghana and elsewhere todemonstrate that exchanging complex data is possible using relatively simple technology.
The system’s design uses a classic military approach that is built into countless military command, control, communications, computers,intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance applications, said Hamlin Tallent, vice president of C4ISR systems at Sentek and a retired Navy rear admiral. “The broad view of the system we’re working on is that it’s a collaboration and execution platform,” said Cameron Matthews, chief technology officer at Sentek. “It involves a lot of visualization and mapping tools for geographic data, tracking tasks and calendars so that we can see what’s going on, and see after-action reports that let us see what went wrong, so we can do more planning to see what the next round of activity should be.” It’s designed using a JBoss Enterprise Service Bus and portals as a central communication point, allowing almost any Internet-capablemachine to act as a client. That’s important in countries in which cell phone networks, radio, short-range Wi-Fi and landlines of varying bandwidth and quality could all make up pieces of an operations and emergency response network for a client country, Tallent said.One of the reasons the system is built only as a prototype is that critical issues — such as how to connect via existing media — areuncertain, and the controls, workflow and data repositories all depend on the needs of the government implementing the system,said Matthews.
The next question for Sentek is whether Africom will take an active role in promoting the software — which it contracted withSentek to build — to African client states. At press time, there was no confirmation of whether that decision had been made or what formthe support would take.
Africom is facing criticism from a number of African states and commentators, however, many of whom are suspicious of U.S. motivesin creating a military command focused on the continent. Africom takes pains to note on its Web site that its 1,300-person staff is made up almost exclusively of planners and analysts, and the command itself has no current in fighting or planning wars. Africom’s site notes that the United States spends $9 billion per year in Africa on support for AIDS, education, famine prevention and other causes, and only $250 million on military operations.
Still, Basu said, the reaction of some African organizations to “a bunch of white dudes, ex-military, trying to sell something is: ‘Are you CIA?’ There’s a lot of distrust.”
There might also be a lack of confidence that has nothing to do with trust, Malan said. One of the U.S. contributions to African peacekeeping efforts a few years ago was the donation of 40 computers and war-gaming software to the Kofi Annan International Peace Keeping Training Centre in Ghana, Malan said.
“Within three or four months, all the officers they trained on those systems had been sent out of country for peacekeeping operations,”Malan said. “There was no one left who knew what to do with them, so they just sat and gathered dust.”