Inter Press Service
The United States and its allies should give much more attention - and resources - to ensuring that weak West African governments along the oil- and gas-rich Gulf of Guinea can protect their territory and coastal regions from terrorists, drug and human traffickers, and other threats, according to new report by an influential think tank released here this week.
The 80-page report, published by the Washington-based Atlantic Council, warns that current economic and political conditions, as well as regional demographic trends are "creating a fertile environment where illicit groups including acolytes of radical Islam can readily win new adherents."
"(V)ital security, economic and humanitarian interests, including long-term access to energy are at grave risk from regional instability and the increasing potential for state failures in an economically and politically distressed area of over 250 million people," according to the report, entitled 'Advancing U.S., African, and Global Interests: Security and Stability in the West African Maritime Domain.'
"The threats that are coming up the West African coast really have an enormous potential for huge instability, and the question is what are we going to do about that," said Gen. James Jones (ret.), who stepped down as President Barack Obama's national security adviser just five weeks ago.
Warning that "transnational crime and terror" are "working more closely together" in the region, Jones, whose presence Wednesday at the report's release and the official launch of the Council's new Africa Center helped underline the seriousness with which the report's recommendations are likely to be received here, said the NATO alliance should also devote more attention to stabilising the region.
Despite Washington's high-profile focus on the Greater Middle East and South Asia during President George W. Bush's eight-year tenure and Obama's more recent efforts to move East Asia up the ladder of foreign policy priorities, U.S. interests in West Africa have grown steadily over the past decade.
In part, that is due to fears that al Qaeda and its local affiliates could extend their influence and operations throughout the predominantly Muslim populations in the region. These fears have translated primarily into counterterrorism initiatives, such as the Trans-Sahara Counter-Terrorism Programme, which is overseen by the three- year-old U.S. Africa Command, or AFRICOM.
But the U.S. has also become increasingly reliant on oil and gas exports from West Africa and the Gulf of Guinea itself. According to the report, 18 percent of U.S. oil imports and 14 percent of its natural gas (LNG) imports currently originate in the region. That percentage is expected to rise to 25 percent by 2015.
Because most of those resources are produced along the region's coastline or, increasingly, off-shore, secure and sustained access to those resources has become a growing concern in Washington, particularly in light of recent disruptions caused by local insurgencies or criminal gangs, especially in Nigeria, the region's most important oil- producer, described in the report as "the closest to what the area can call a regional hegemon".
While securing the flow of these energy resources constitutes a "vital" U.S. interest, enhancing maritime security in the region is also very much in the interests of local populations on a range of fronts, the report insisted.
It noted that drug-trafficking, including by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and other South American cartels, has been adding to corruption problems as West Africa has become a key transit route to Europe.
In addition, large-scale poaching by European and Asian fishing fleets is depriving the local people of an important source of food and revenue, while unregulated ocean dumping of toxic materials and oil are jeopardising the health and sustainability of the marine environment on which they also depend for subsistence, according to the report.
Piracy has also become a growing problem. "The Gulf of Guinea," it said, "has become second only to Somali waters in the number of attacks at sea," and may even exceed it.
As stressed in the report, however, the region's governments lack the resources, including maritime defence forces and intelligence, and, in some cases, the political will – often due to corruption – to deal with these challenges.
"We need support from our (international) partners to address the issue of African maritime security," agreed Amina Salum Ali, the African Union's (AU) representative to the United States, who commented on the new report.
"There is not enough attention (paid) to the West Africa threat," she added, noting that one government, presumably Guinea-Bissau, has been destabilised by "narco-trafficking and terrorism".
Despite strong U.S. interest in enhancing maritime security in the region, the report stressed that West Africans must themselves take the lead in shaping a response.
"We must always remember this is an African problem that will require African solutions and the will of governments to solve," said Adm. Henry Ulrich (ret.), who commanded U.S. naval forces in Europe and Africa from 2005 to 2007. "It's not one size fits all; it has to be tailored to (each) country."
Like the report itself, he also stressed that Washington and its allies needed to supply more than equipment and other resources for maritime security. Efforts to curb corruption, provide better governance, and promote economic development were also required as part of a "smart power" strategy designed to prevent state failure.
He also endorsed one of the report's main recommendations that the U.S. and its allies begin with a "pilot programme" focused on one or two West African countries for a "comprehensive maritime security development programme to serve as a regional proof of concept."
"There's enough resources out there that are being provided by the U.S. government and other governments around the world and commercial interests that if we can bring them together, we can see success sooner rather than later," he said.
The report found that current U.S. efforts including naval presence, aid to coast guards and related security forces, training, and equipment, are "uncoordinated, unfocused, under resourced, and not yet hitting the mark".
The report also called for Washington to work with China and other emerging countries with growing interests in West Africa, as well as its NATO allies, to promote anti- corruption and security initiatives.
"The intent (of the report) is to shine the spotlight, sound the alarm," said John Raidt, director of the Council's "On the Horizon" programme.
Founded in 1954 to build public support for Washington's Cold War collective security alliances, the Atlantic Council has long served as a bastion of the U.S. foreign-policy establishment.
The current chairman, former Sen. Chuck Hagel, serves as co- chair of the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (PFIAB). The chairman of the Council's International Advisory Board is Brent Scowcroft, national security advisor to former presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush. Stanley Ebner, an adviser to the neoconservative Centre for Security Policy and long-time defense industry executive is a “lifetime” member of the board of directors. “Honorary” board members include notable political elites such as Madeleine Albright, James Baker, Frank Carlucci, Warren Christopher, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, and James Schlesinger.