On Friday, the Wall Street Journal reported that the U.S. military is "stepping up its activity in the countries of West Africa to help local forces fight piracy and other criminal activity," dryly adding in the same lead sentence, for those who don't get it: "in a region that is now on par with the Persian Gulf in terms of U.S. oil imports." -- For the neo-Orwellian WSJ, it's all a matter of "security and social partnering," or "help." -- And to "help," there is a "new U.S. military command, dubbed Africom," which is "expected to officially start operations in October from Stuttgart, Germany." -- But in the meantime, not to worry, "efforts in individual African nations" are "already happening." -- "The idea is to bolster fragile nations and prevent failed states from breeding radical groups," deadpanned Spencer Swartz. -- This article focuses on Benin, where voodoo originated. -- Benin was taken over by France from 1892 to 1958 (French is still the official language), until 1975 was known as Dahomey, and borders Nigeria. -- The real function of the U.S. military is not to support the rule of law in West Africa, but to wage counterrevolutionary warfare against the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, or MEND, which the Wall Street Journal would rather not name. -- The financing of MEND's revolutionary struggle is the "piracy and other criminal activity" of greatest concern, so people from Darfur need not apply. -- For some background on AFRICOM and the oil wars in West Africa, see here. -- Into Africa! ...
WEST AFRICA GETS U.S. MILITARY HELP
By Spencer Swartz
** Efforts to Curb Piracy In Oil-Rich Region **
Wall Street Journal
June 29, 2007
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB118307953973252377.html (subscription required)
GULF OF GUINEA, Benin -- The U.S. military is stepping up its activity in the countries of West Africa to help local forces fight piracy and other criminal activity in a region that is now on par with the Persian Gulf in terms of U.S. oil imports.
The effort, already under way in Benin, is an example of the type of security and social partnering the U.S. military hopes to replicate under a new U.S. command center focused on Africa. The idea is to bolster fragile nations and prevent failed states from breeding radical groups, like the Taliban in Afghanistan in the 1990s.
The new U.S. military command, dubbed Africom, is expected to officially start operations in October from Stuttgart, Germany, where the U.S. military's operations center for Europe is located. But efforts in individual African nations are already happening.
The move comes as the world's biggest oil companies -- including U.S.-based Exxon Mobil Corp. and France's Total SA -- are investing billions of dollars to boost production in Africa. That push is making West Africa increasingly important to the world's energy supplies -- even as the region remains under threat from lawlessness and piracy.
In most months, the energy-producing countries of West Africa -- primarily Nigeria and Angola, but also Gabon and the Republic of Congo -- ship as much or more oil to the U.S. as Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf nations.
But violence in Nigeria's oil-producing delta region has hurt production there for more than a year, and especially in recent months. Currently, West Africa supplies about 15% of the U.S.'s oil imports -- a share that could rise to 25% if violence in the region can be subdued and investment in new production continues to flow.
In Benin -- a former French colony of eight million people just west of Nigeria on the Gulf of Guinea -- the U.S. military has been helping the country's tiny navy step up its operations against pirates who help distribute stolen cargoes of crude oil and gasoline from Nigeria. Those cargoes end up being sold in jerry cans on street corners along the West African coast.
It won't be an easy fight. Benin's navy has just 600 sailors and two old patrol boats, with an annual budget of about $200,000. They are facing heavily armed pirates who move under the cover of darkness in speedboats.
"The sea bandits are still winning out here," says Capt. Maxime Ahoyo, a 21-year navy veteran and one of Benin's top naval officers.
Oil theft costs Nigeria and energy companies in this region hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue every year, according to industry estimates.
"You see stolen Nigerian oil come through here all the time. But we don't have all the means to control this," says Capt. Ahoyo. The navy goes out on patrols twice a week and never at night because its two boats are old and prone to breaking down, he adds.
Benin's patrol boats also have top speeds of only about 25 kilometers per hour, and have been frequently outrun by pirates.
Despite the big challenges they face, Benin's sailors are now more skilled at engaging boats and using navigation instruments, and they have apprehended more suspect vessels in recent months, Capt. Ahoyo says. U.S. military officials say U.S. personnel have visited Benin over the past two years to provide training and aid to the country's navy.
Illegal fishing and trafficking of weapons and drugs are also major problems facing Benin's ill-equipped navy. The flourishing criminality, paired with the region's deep poverty and porous borders, is troubling to the U.S. and Europe because of the risks of radical groups gaining a foothold.
Indeed, some people worry that an expanded U.S. military presence in the region could attract more of the radical groups that the U.S. is trying to stamp out, just as the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq has made that country into a key battlefield in the fight against al Qaeda. Elsewhere in Africa, U.S. forces based in Djibouti have in the past year fought alongside Ethiopia against al Qaeda-linked groups in Somalia.
"Wherever our troops go, the 'war on terror' seems to go there too, and then humanitarian needs become secondary," says Nicole Lee, executive director at the TransAfrica Forum in Washington, a nonprofit organization that focuses on U.S.-Africa policies.
The U.S. says no new troops will be based in Africa and that U.S. agencies such as the State Department will play a key role in diplomatic work with groups like the African Union, which promotes greater economic and social unity between African nations.
Theresa Whelan, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for African affairs, says U.S. intervention under Africom would be in partnership with regional actors and in "extraordinary circumstances in extremis after all other options had been exhausted."
For reasons of nationalism and dislike of the U.S. war in Iraq, Africom has gotten a tepid reaction in North African Arab states like Libya, but is likely to find a better reception in sub-Saharan Africa, says Sebastian Spio-Garbrah, Africa analyst at Eurasia Group in New York. The U.S. wasn't a colonial power in Africa, he notes.
In Benin's commercial capital of Cotonou, street vendor Laurent Chabi is mindful of the issues of a potential U.S. presence here. "Beninese like the U.S. Having the U.S. here would help us, but it could bring terrorists," he says.