A Washington research group issued a report Tuesday calling for more and better coordinated U.S. and international efforts to improve security in and around West Africa's Gulf of Guinea. The Atlantic Council's report says such efforts are needed to maintain the flow of oil from the petroleum rich region, as well as to fight terrorism and the drug trade, and to improve the lives of the region's people.
The report's authors call the current situation in the Gulf of Guinea highly problematic, and call for African nations to lead an international effort to secure the region's waters, protect commercial shipping, ensure the flow of oil and promote economic development. They identify seven issues that need to be dealt with - terrorism, trafficking and theft, and piracy, poaching, pollution and poverty. And they say the way to do that is by building political will and government capacity in West African nations, and by expanding and better coordinating U.S. and international aid efforts.
The report also calls for developing a better understanding of the relationship between drug traffickers, who ship their products and launder their profits through West Africa, and terrorists, who are exploiting poverty and weak governance to expand their presence in the region.
Retired U.S. Navy Admiral Henry Ulrich, who commanded American naval forces in Europe and Africa from 2005 until 2007, endorsed the report's findings. "The challenges, the threats, the impediments and the way ahead are unassailable," he said.
Ulrich says the U.S. State Department has developed a plan to improve the delivery of aid to West Africa, and that plan should be adopted. He says there should be no more debate about whether or how to act. "The report is a call for action. And it eliminates the need for a debate of 'should we?' We just need now to have a discussion now on when and where we start this," he said.
The report acknowledges that unimpeded access to the Gulf of Guinea's oil is a key motivation for the United States and other countries. But Admiral Ulrich says that provides an opportunity for the people of West Africa to benefit from what he calls 'smart power,' the use of aid to improve the region's governments and economies, and its ability to keep violent militants out.
"There is a realization that this area of the world is going to become important. And it's already important and it's going to become increasingly important. And we have the opportunity now to be proactive, as opposed to reactive. And we ought to seize on that and go in there with 'smart power' to get it under control, working with the Africans, such that we don't have to go in with troops 10 or 15 years from now," he said.
The acting director of the Atlantic Council's Ansari Africa Center, Martin Kimani, says in the coming years the Gulf of Guinea region will either be prosperous and stable or it will become a threat to U.S. national security interests. He says the degree of follow up on reports like this one will help determine which path the region takes.