The Lure of Oil and the Drug War: Why Washington Has Joined the Battle For West Africa

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The U.S. is turning its sights to West Africa, where the Obama administration is building up a vast array of military resources.

With the winding down of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Washington is turning its sights elsewhere. Quietly, the Obama administration is building up a vast array of military resources in West Africa, and specifically in Portuguese-speaking Lusophone countries. Reportedly, the Pentagon wants to establish a monitoring station in the Cape Verde islands, while further south in the Gulf of Guinea U.S. ships and personnel are patrolling local waters. Concerned lest it draw too much attention to itself, the Pentagon has avoided constructing large military installations and focused instead on a so-called “lily pad” strategy of smaller bases. In São Tomé and Príncipe, an island chain in the Gulf of Guinea and former Portuguese colony, the Pentagon may install one such “under the radar” base, and U.S. Navy Seabees are already engaged in construction work at the local airport.Just why has the Obama administration invested so much time and effort in this corner of the globe? To be sure, controlling remote “lily pads” may come in handy in the battle against Islamist militants operating farther inland in such countries as Mali and Niger. Washington also wants to counteract drug smuggling emanating from West Africa, a volatile and politically unstable region. Guinea-Bissau, a former Portuguese colony, has in recent years turned into a cocaine hub, and the United Nations has called the country a “narco-state.” Guinea-Bissau is geographically situated at Africa’s most westerly point, and South American smugglers are thought to transport drug shipments from here on to Cape Verde and then to Europe. Reportedly, Brazil has become South America’s largest net exporter of drugs to Africa. However, in recent years African traffickers have begun to produce methamphetamines and have muscled in on their Latin counterparts, wresting an increasingly large portion over the drug smuggling business. The Africans ship cocaine by sea and have assumed international control over cocaine exports as far away as the Brazilian city of São Paulo. Brazilian drug traffickers, meanwhile, are left with the domestic side of the business and are forced to sell coke to locals.Oil Intrigue in the Gulf of GuineaTo be sure then, the U.S. is interested in patrolling West African waters in an effort to stem the tide of drug traffic. There may be other, less public reasons for the U.S. military buildup in the region, however. In an effort to ease its dependence on the volatile Middle East, the U.S. is looking elsewhere for its oil and is likely to receive a whopping 25 percent of its imported petroleum from Africa by 2015. Former American Vice Admiral and Deputy Commander of the U.S. Africa Command Robert Moeller has stated that protecting “the free flow of natural resources from Africa to the global market” is highly important, as well as forestalling oil disruption. What is more, the U.S. must now confront a rising China, a nation which is also interested in securing oil deposits in West Africa. In its drive to acquire natural resources, China has been pursuing offshore oil exploration contracts in the politically unstable nation of São Tomé and Príncipe. In 2009, Chinese petroleum corporation Sinopec acquired Swiss company Addax which gave Beijing control over four oil blocs in the São Tomé and Príncipe-Nigeria joint development zone. The Sinopec purchase in the Gulf of Guinea made China the leading player in the São Tomé and Príncipe oil sector. Whether the islands will actually take off as a major oil producer is still unclear, though drilling is under way and commercial production is expected to begin within a few years.If São Tomé and Príncipe take off as a major oil supplier, China will certainly be well positioned to reap maximum reward from the petroleum bonanza. However, Beijing will also have to reckon with a growing U.S. military profile on the islands. Recently, U.S. Navy Seabees have been renovating a boat ramp on São Tomé’s coast guard base and building a guard house on the premises. Meanwhile, the Pentagon and State Department have installed a new surface surveillance system on the islands. São Tomé and Príncipe is the first African nation to install the program and to integrate such technology into its overall maritime safety program.A Growing Role for São Tomé and PríncipeMeanwhile, politicians on the island have broached the idea of deepening security ties, and Washington is reportedly receptive to the notion. U.S. officials see the island chain as a lily pad or forward operating base staffed by several hundred troops. São Tomé and Príncipe could be a promising site, the Americans believe, since the islands are heavily Catholic and have no history of Islamic militancy. Recently, American Coast Guard cutters have been patrolling local waters in an effort to assess threats to oil access. Coming ashore, the crewmen then fix door hinges no less in a blatant public relations maneuver. Needless to say, not everyone is thrilled about the contingency plans. Speaking to the Associated Press, one local legislator was under no illusions about the growing American presence. Unfortunately,” he remarked, “Americans are interested in São Tomé because of oil, but São Tomé existed before that.” Former Prime Minister Guilherme Posser, meanwhile, says there should be greater transparency when it comes to military discussions. The notion of a base should be submitted to a national referendum, he argues.The China-Macau ConnectionFaced with a growing U.S. profile in West Africa, the Chinese have busily sought to counteract such influence. According to a sensitive U.S. diplomatic cable, Chinese immigrants advance the Asian Tiger’s business interests in the region by forming joint ventures with African firms. The influx of new Chinese entrepreneurs has been accompanied by “organized crime elements, which are involved in trafficking, smuggling, and other illegal activities.” Moreover, in a specific effort to counteract the U.S. in African Lusophone countries, Beijing has appealed to its own business community in Macau, a peninsula connected to the southern Chinese mainland. A former Portuguese colony, Macau reverted to Chinese rule in 1999.Speaking with American diplomats, local contacts told the U.S. Consulate in Hong Kong that Macau could be useful to China due to the former colony’s ties to the Catholic Church. To be sure, “more than a few” of Macau’s ethnically Portuguese residents had relocated to Portugal after the colony’s handover to Beijing, and only a very small percentage of local residents spoke Portuguese. Nevertheless, diplomats reported that “a comparatively high 7.6 percent of civil servants in the Macau government claim that Portuguese is their primary language [and] this has helped maintain the Macau government’s capacity to interface with Lusophone counterparts on behalf of Beijing.” According to diplomatic cables, China hopes to take advantage of such cultural links and believes that Macau should “expand its economic and trade links with overseas Chinese communities” while also providing “a stable platform for China’s trade ties and linkages” with such Lusophone countries as São Tomé and Príncipe, Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau. Beijing also hopes that Macau will extend ties to the tiny nation of Equatorial Guinea, a former Spanish colony located in the Gulf of Guinea and Africa’s only Spanish-speaking nation. Though American diplomats report that overall volume of trade between China and the Lusophone countries remains low, Macau could prove quite useful for Beijing in the coming struggle for West African resources.Enter BrazilOverstretched and facing budgetary constraints, the Pentagon may have difficulties containing China in far-flung corners of the globe. In an effort to overcome such disadvantages, the Obama administration has been turning to Brazil, a nation which has common cultural and historical ties to former Portuguese colonies in West Africa [for a longer discussion about the politics surrounding Brazil’s rising role see my earlier al-Jazeera column here]. Though Brazil has not been able to rival China’s economic presence, the South American newcomer has been deploying its corporations to Africa in the hope of cashing in on Africa’s oil boom and deepwater petroleum exploration. Establishing cordial ties to Brasilia may be a shrewd move for Washington. Under former President Lula, Brazil did its utmost to establish links with São Tomé and Príncipe and recently the South American powerhouse wrote off the impoverished island’s debt. During his tenure, Lula traveled to Cape Verde to attend a summit meeting of the so-called Portuguese speaking countries, otherwise known as Comunidades dos Paises de Lingua Portuguesa [or CPLP]. While in Cape Verde, Lula sought to highlight Brazil’s long-standing social and economic ties and assistance programs with the island. In a further effort to extend its cultural influence, Brazil is backing Equatorial Guinea’s desire to join the CPLP. Washington seems to hope that Brazil will act as an assistant policeman in West Africa so the Obama administration can avoid unnecessary political entanglements. There are some signs that Brazil, which seeks to guarantee its investments and the free flow of commerce, might just oblige. According to a recent article in the New York Times, Brazil has been training elite African forces at a remote military base in the Amazon. Meanwhile, the Brazilian Ministry of Defense, which wants to halt the spread of piracy, has pledged to donate aircraft to Cape Verde for maritime patrol duties. Washington’s Wary Ally?In West Africa, the Pentagon needs all the help it can get. The U.S. Coast Guard has been paying visits to Cape Verde and Equatorial Guinea, but oil facilities are considered vulnerable. In politically unstable Equatorial Guinea, some American oil platforms are protected not by the local government’s insignificant Navy but by private unarmed guards. Interviewed by the Associated Press, one U.S. military officer described Equatorial Guinea’s military authorities as “distant and standoffish,” speculating that the estrangement had to do with increasing Chinese influence in the troubled West African nation.Coming to the aid of an ally, Brazil has trained U.S. military personnel at its own jungle warfare center. Meanwhile, U.S. ships perform joint exercises with the Brazilian Navy and both countries patrol the waters stretching from Rio de Janeiro to the Gulf of Guinea. Presumably, Brazil carries out such collaboration because it is concerned with maritime security and drug trafficking, though perhaps this South American newcomer also shares Washington’s concern over rising Chinese influence. Whatever the case, Brazil seems perfectly happy for the time being to act in concert with the Obama administration. The question, however, is whether Brazil will view such collaboration as desirable in the long-term. Already, there have been strains in the U.S.-Brazilian relationship, and there may come a time when this up and coming South American nation may wish to carve out its own sphere of influence in the Lusophone world without any interference from outside powers.

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