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US Paying More Attention to West African Security - 2004-09-02

The United States is stepping up its training and contacts with militaries in West Africa, a region prone to instability and a potential haven for terrorists that is set to become a growing source of American oil. A top U.S. military commander has just completed his second trip to the region in as many months and more visits are planned.

Twice now since July, Air Force General Charles Wald, deputy commander of all U.S. forces in Europe and much of Africa, has traveled to what has long been one of the most overlooked and impoverished areas of the world.

"Africa is emerging as a huge strategic issue," said Mr. Wald.

That's partly because of the discovery of huge deposits of oil off the West African coast, a multi-billion dollar asset that has the potential to transform a region long ignored by superpowers into one of great wealth and huge strategic importance.

"The United States and the western world in the next five or ten years will be getting 25 percent of our hydrocarbons from that area," he explained. "Right now, we get less than that from the Middle East. It's going to become hugely important to us from a security standpoint."

It's also a region where coups and criminal enterprise are common. Difficult to patrol borders have also made the area increasingly fertile for terrorists. Major General Scott Gration was part of the U.S. delegation that just returned from visiting four West African nations.

"There obviously will be economic interests to having a system of security in place so that these hydrocarbons can be produced, stored and then moved out to countries, not only the United States, but around the world," he said.

Sao Tome and Principe President Fradique de Menezes was invited by the U.S. military to Germany last month to see how another oil rich region of the world is doing just that.

"Basically we were able to show him what we're doing in terms of helping with the Tblisi, Baku, Cheyhan pipeline that is going in and brings oil into the Mediterranean Sea," he added. "They are the same kind of issues that have to be thought through in this joint zone between Nigeria and Sao Tome."

But groups concerned about Africa's development are cautious about where all this outside attention and potential wealth might lead. Ian Gary of Catholic Relief Services is among them.

"I think we have to look more in terms of using U.S. diplomatic and other leverage to ensure that these new oil revenues in the Gulf of Guinea will be transparent, that the leaders will be held accountable for how those revenues are spent and that good governance and human rights are emphasized in addition to the dialogue on energy, security and military cooperation," he said.

Another visit to Africa by a senior U.S. military official is scheduled for next week.