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US Helps West African Navies

  • Nico Colombant

A large U.S Navy ship has deployed in the Gulf of Guinea to help West African navies become more effective in providing security in the oil-rich waters. But some African analysts warn American-led cooperation could be counter-productive.

The mission's commander, Marine Colonel Barry Cronin, spoke to VOA as the USS Emory S. Land entered West African waters, after departing from Spain last week.

"This visit by the Land is part of a phased approach to work with our African allies, in their effort to establish this regional maritime security on their own," he said.

About 20 West African navy officers are on board, as well as 1,400 sailors and Marines.

Over the next six weeks, the ship is scheduled to make stops in Ghana, Cameroon and Gabon.

The deputy commander of American forces in West Africa, Air Force General Charles Wald, has said the American military does not intend to have ships stationed in the region permanently and that West African countries should defend their waters, themselves.

To help this process, Colonel Cronin says training will take place aboard the large American vessel, as it travels south.

"This ship is a logistics and support vessel," he said. "Someone described it as, and I hope the ship takes no umbrage, as a giant floating truck stop. It's capable of all kinds of repair type activities. We're looking into that. One of the other areas we think we might be able to help is with leadership development, something we take great pride in, the United States military, and something in which they are also interested in."

Gulf of Guinea countries lack effective deep-sea navies and some - especially Nigeria - are dealing with rising banditry and violence in connection with oil production. General Wald has said the countries in the region need to improve shipping security and to protect pipelines and offshore rigs to prevent attacks.

In a separate endeavor, the United States is furnishing Nigeria's navy with 15 patrol boats, to the delight of Nigerian Navy spokesman Captain Sinebi Hungiapuko.

"We think the boats can solve our problems. And also they are ready to give us assistance, especially on piracy and these smuggling activities," he said.

He went on to say the new patrol boats will be used to crack down on theft of crude oil in deep sea waters and in creeks of the Niger Delta.

But a London-based African security and oil analyst, Olly Owen, says the United States should be careful in helping Nigeria's navy, because institutions in Nigeria remain very corrupt. Three senior naval officials were recently court-martialed for alleged involvement in the disappearance of an oil tanker impounded for smuggling 11,000 barrels of crude oil.

"The Navy being the institution that's given over to cutting off this lucrative criminal economy, inevitably some people will be compromised and fall subject to temptation," he said. "Is that then a reason not to assist them at all? Perhaps, that's not a sufficient reason. Perhaps if the U.S. can be convinced that their aid isn't going to waste by being poured into a leaky vessel, then there's some value to it."

General Wald has said the aim of the cooperation is also to protect oil installations against possible terrorist attacks.

A Nigerian university professor, who studies relations between the United States and Africa, Layi Abegurin, says to do this, more focus should be given to diplomacy and development. He says a situation of a strong military with continued poverty in oil-rich areas can incite terrorism.

"They are creating more enemies," he said. "They should work through the economic means, through diplomacy, not through force. You have to work collaboratively, through diplomatic means, and give economic incentives to people. If there is economic incentive, if they have where they can get their daily bread, where they can get money to feed their families, many of them will not resort to terrorism."

West Africa already accounts for 14 percent of American oil imports, a share which could soon rise with the exploitation of new oil fields in Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea, Mauritania, Chad and possibly the tiny islands of Sao Tome and Principe.