International experts are in Nigeria to discuss ways of boosting security for Africa's energy resources. Much of the talk is focused on the growing strategic importance of oil and natural gas in the Gulf of Guinea and the volatile Niger Delta.
The goal of this week's U.S.-sponsored Energy and Security in Africa conference in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, is to come up with solutions to the conflicts, corruption, and instability that plague what are potentially Africa's wealthiest areas.
In Nigeria, that means the volatile Niger Delta, where ethnic tensions and social discontent have fueled decades of violence. Nigerian Minister of Defense, Dr. Roland Oritsejafor, says problems there have led to the loss of $2 billion in oil revenues since 1999.
"In the Niger Delta region, this area has found its own security concerns, which include cases of youth restiveness, violent ethnic militias, and the taking of oil workers as hostages,” he said. “This is why I strongly believe that the strategic importance of the Gulf of Guinea to American and European interests calls for closer collaboration."
West Africa's Gulf of Guinea, which the Niger Delta is a part of, accounts for half of the continent's total oil and gas production. With increasing political uncertainty in the Middle East, international interest in African oil is growing.
The United States recently sold eight state-of-the-art patrol boats to the Nigerian Navy to combat the theft of oil in the Niger Delta.
The U.S. is also providing training to Nigeria's military. And this week's conference is being organized by the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, a policy-forming center funded by the U.S. Department of Defense.
The center's director, retired General Carlton Fulford, says that the oil-producing countries of the Gulf of Guinea often lack the capacity to create an atmosphere of law and order. He says that creating security is paramount if these countries are to live up to their full economic potential.
"I firmly believe that you must have security and stability before you can have economic growth and development and the poverty reduction that you're looking for,” he said. “I think they need to come together. You can't have one without the other. But I also believe that security must be first. Because before you can be secure, you're not going to have the investment, you're not going to have the economic development that is so vital to the peoples of this continent."
But a researcher for London's Royal Institute for International Affairs, Manuel Paulo, says increased security does not automatically create wealth for those who need it most.
"It is important to distinguish poverty reduction with security,” said Mr. Paulo. “Because poverty is an issue related to governance. It is the inability of people in most of the Gulf of Guinea to engage positively with their government. As a result you have a great level of poverty. And those governments are then unable to redistribute the massive wealth they generate from oil. And as a result, people have a high level of discontent."
The five-day Energy and Security in Africa conference ends Friday.