What Oil Can Do to Tiny States


US Strategic Interests Rise in West Africa's Oil-Rich Gulf of Guinea

God bless Africa, Guard her people, Guide her leaders, And give her peace.

- Trevor Huddleston

São Tomé and Principe are the islands on the left off the coast of Gabon.

by Todd Pitman

São Tomé, São Tomé and Principe - Far from home, a US Coast Guard cutter ploughs its white bow through the seas of West Africa's Gulf of Guinea, where an oil boom could outpace Persian Gulf exports to America in a decade.  The ship's presence here is a sign of US military and financial interest in an increasingly strategic part of the world - one American officials say is vulnerable to piracy, political instability and terrorism.

The potential dangers are clear with 3,000 miles of virtually unpoliced coastline that's home to billions of dollars in US oil industry investment alone.  "It's a lot of water with not a lot of security," said Lieutenant Commander Daniel Trott, a strategy specialist for US Naval Forces Europe, whose area of responsibility includes most of Africa.  "And where there's a lack of security, there's an opportunity for bad actors to show up."

Though US officials cite no current terrorist activity in the Gulf of Guinea, homegrown al-Qaeda-linked groups or cells are thought to be active across Africa, especially in countries with large Muslim populations like Algeria, a longtime oil producer, and Mauritania, which is poised to start pumping crude next year.  In Nigeria, the 5th-biggest source of US oil imports, a phoned-in terror threat in June forced the US consulate in Lagos to close for several days.  Al-Qaeda chief Osama Bin Laden purportedly marked Nigeria for "liberation" in a release posted on the Internet.

The United States is trying to ease its dependence on oil from the volatile Middle East by turning to West Africa, which produces about 4.5 million barrels of light, sweet crude a day.  Led by top African producer Nigeria, the Gulf of Guinea already delivers about 15% of America's oil supply.  By 2015, that figure may swell to 25%, according to the US National Intelligence Council, a CIA think-tank.  The Persian Gulf, by contrast, accounts for about 22% of US imports, according to the US government's Energy Information Administration.  Over the next 5 years, 1 in 5 new barrels of oil on the global market will come from the Gulf of Guinea, and more than $33 billion will be invested in the region, 40% of it from American companies, the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies estimates.

Stretching roughly from Ivory Coast to Angola, the Gulf of Guinea is relatively unfamiliar to US forces, and tours of the region such as last month's by the Coast Guard are aimed at shaking hands, gaining familiarity and assessing threats to oil access.  The 100-man crew of the Portsmouth, Virginia-based cutter, temporarily assigned to the Navy's 6th Fleet, paid brief visits to Cape Verde, Ghana, Benin, Equatorial Guinea and São Tomé and Principe, a tiny two-island republic whose capital's seaport is so small that the 270-foot vessel had to anchor offshore.

One recent morning, half a dozen São Toméan sailors hopped aboard an orange American zodiac, taking instruction from US sailors on man-overboard lifesaving exercises.  On land, another group gathered around a mustachioed American showing them how to repair an outboard motor.  That afternoon at a peach-coloured seaside high school, the only one in a country of about 150,000 people that's roughly 5 times the size of Washington, DC, a few US crewmen fixed door hinges in what was clearly a public relations campaign.  São Toméan officials warmly welcomed the 3-day American presence, but they were under no illusions.  "Unfortunately, Americans are interested in São Tomé because of oil, but São Tomé existed before that," said Carlos Neves, national assembly vice president.

São Tomé doesn't have any proven reserves, but the search is under way and the government has awarded some exploration sectors to American and other companies.  Think tanks like CSIS are pushing for a greater US role in the region to protect American interests.  But with its own military assets tied up elsewhere, including the Persian Gulf and Iraq, the United States is not looking to take the lead in the region - at least not yet.  "We don't have the resources to provide maritime security here.  We're not going to be the force in the Gulf of Guinea," Trott told The Associated Press at a hotel in palm-fringed São Tomé, capital of the archipelago perched on the equator.  "But we are looking to increase our involvement right now - not to send ships on patrols, but to develop partnerships and develop capacities," he said.  "If the Navy had more assets, would they send them here?  Probably.  But our first choice is to use what we have to facilitate training and regional cooperation."

Cutter Commander Bob Wagner described the mission to develop African maritime security as "preventive work to keep terrorists from the seas."  The only US military base in Africa is in the Horn of Africa nation of Djibouti, the hub of anti-terrorism efforts on the continent.  São Tomé has been touted as the possible site for a new US naval base, but officials from both countries said no such plans were in the works.  A top US diplomat said US forces may use storage facilities on São Tomé as they do in other parts of Africa: to preposition equipment and supplies for emergencies, but no more.

US involvement today is limited mainly to a yet-to-be-completed feasibility study on expanding the airport and building a deep-water port in Neves, north of the capital, in anticipation of a massive local oil boom.  The US isn't offering to construct either, however, and deeply impoverished São Tomé can't do it alone.

Showing São Tomé lawmakers around the cutter's bridge, Wagner spread out a large map of the country, its maritime boundaries highlighted with a black pen.  Underlining São Tomé's desperate state, local coast guard chief Captain Joao Idalecio asked if he could have a copy.

The tiny size and inexperience of Africa's maritime forces, and the lack of cooperation between them, are chief concerns. São Tomé and Principe's coast guard is just 50 men and two inflatable zodiacs - clearly inadequate to patrol a vast, yet-to-be-exploited zone it shares with Nigeria that's believed to contain up to 11 billion barrels of oil.  Petrol facilities and oil rigs in other places are also vulnerable.  In Equatorial Guinea, for example, some US oil platforms are protected not by that government's minuscule navy but by private, unarmed guards.

Fostering political stability and keeping oil flowing are key US goals, particularly in Nigeria, which exports about 2.5 million barrels daily, half of it to the United States.  Militia attacks and threats against foreign oil workers in Nigeria's oil-rich delta have cut hundreds of thousands of barrels of daily oil production.  Muslim-Christian violence in the volatile country's north has killed thousands.  On Wednesday, army officers overthrew the US-allied president of Islamic Mauritania, which had been increasingly looking to the West and citing a growing threat from al-Qaeda-linked militants.  Equatorial Guinea and São Tomé have both been struck by coups and attempted coups over the past few years.

Washington had in the past shunned Equatorial Guinea, run by Teodoro Obiang, a longtime dictator who had his predecessor - his uncle - executed by firing squad.  But with the tiny nation's newfound oil wealth, that has begun to change.  The visit to Equatorial Guinea was the first by US forces in 13 years.  US officials said most countries welcomed the American visits, though one officer described Equatorial Guinea military officials as "distant and standoffish," speculating their estrangement was because of growing Chinese influence there.

Encouraging intelligence-sharing and helping nations prepare for potential terror threats is another US strategy.  It's similar to what the US is trying to do elsewhere on the continent, particularly the vast, ungoverned stretches of open desert that sweep across northern Africa, where US forces conducted joint training exercises with African armies this summer.  In October, the US Navy hosted a first-ever gathering in Italy of Gulf of Guinea naval officials. A similar conference is planned for Ghana in December.

Idalecio said São Tomé hoped to expand its own coast guard, mainly to protect against illegal fishing and piracy.  Wagner acknowledged the monumental task under-equipped African naval forces face.  "You have to start somewhere," he said, watching a friendly soccer match pitting US sailors against their São Tomé counterparts on a dusty pitch overlooking the city.  "But there's a recognition that they need to improve."

Source: signonsandiego.com 7 August 2005

What Oil Can Do to Tiny States

Libreville, Malabo, São Tomé - São Tomé is about to strike oil. Bad luck, perhaps?

Marooned off Africa's western coast, the 150,000 people of São Tomé e Príncipe scrape a living from cocoa, fish, aid and tourism.  But oil firms, sniffing with seismic ships, think billions of barrels may lie beneath the island-state's territorial waters.  Oil could change everything in this former Portuguese colony.  This week, for instance, the president, Fradique de Menezes, sacked a parliament that had been planning to curb some of his powers - including his power to negotiate oil deals.  An election will be held in April.

"People are not ready [for oil]. It could be dangerous," says Guilherme Posser da Costa, a former prime minister.  A look at two of São Tomé's neighbours, who are both small and oil-rich, suggests he is right to fret.  In Equatorial Guinea, a former Spanish cocoa colony, and Gabon, a French-dominated oil emirate, oil has done little to ease poverty or lengthen life, and much to corrupt politics.

Equatorial Guinea now pumps more oil per person than Saudi Arabia.  Its economy, once negligible, has grown at an incredible 40% annually since 1996, when the boom began.  A few years ago, the streets of the capital, Malabo, were as quiet as São Tomé's are today.  Now, Malabo's pretty Spanish colonial architecture bristles with satellite dishes, and the streets, bathed at night in an orange glow from gas flared at a nearby methanol plant, are gaudy with sports cars, tropical palaces and prostitutes who flutter in from nearby countries such as Cameroon.  And the tiny country's agriculture is blighted: cocoa and snail farmers have rushed to the towns to grab a slice of the oil bonanza.

Equatorial Guinea was never well-governed: Obiang Nguema, the president, seized power by executing his uncle in 1979.  But oil has made his regime increasingly paranoid.  Several members of the ruling family are thought to want a bigger slurp at the oil barrel.  Mr Obiang sees plots everywhere, and arranges periodic crackdowns.  Several opposition leaders were jailed last year after a mass trial, to which many defendants turned up with broken arms and legs.  Mr Obiang scoffs at western notions of transparency, insisting that how much money his government earns from oil is nobody else's business.  "Oil has turned him crazy," says Celestino Bacale, a brave opposition politician.

In next-door Gabon, Omar Bongo has been in power since 1967.  He is more subtle than Mr Obiang.  He does not torture his enemies but buys them off.  Decades of oil revenues have corrupted Gabonese society and eroded the work ethic.  Citizens aspire to soft billets in the civil service, and turn their noses up at menial jobs like taxi driving or shopkeeping, which they leave to immigrants from poorer places such as Togo and Mali.  Agriculture in Gabon, as in Equatorial Guinea, is all but dead.  The elite in Libreville, Gabon's capital, buy French bottled water, French milk and rognons de volaille gourmet catfood.  Mr Bongo helps French companies keep competitors out, and France thanks him by stationing 600 soldiers next to one of his palaces, and neglecting to criticise him when he wins rigged elections.

Sadly for Gabon's petrocrats, however, the oil is running out.  As output falls, the civil service may no longer be able to pay all its thumb-twiddlers, the migrant workers may go back home, and the Gabonese may have to relearn how to grow cocoa and drive taxis.  And Mr Bongo may no longer have the funds to buy off his opponents.  Recently, he has been stuffing the army with people from his home region.

Will oil bring similar troubles to São Tomé?  Perhaps not. Independent-minded voters booted out the incumbents in two of the last three presidential elections.  Mr de Menezes, a cocoa farmer who was elected in 2001, is trying to wriggle out of the oil-exploration contracts that his predecessor signed with Nigerian, American and Norwegian companies, and which the IMF agrees were bad deals.  This is holding up exploration along the maritime border with Nigeria, which the two countries plan to develop together.  The president says that "oil interests" are trying to destabilise him.  He also fears Nigeria, which has 800 times the population and a big army.  So he has been making friends with America, breakfasting with George Bush in New York last year, and playing host to American military advisers.  If oil is found, it will not flow for several years.  But when it does, it could shake up São Tomé like a firehose aimed at a handful of sand.

Source: economist.com 23 January 2003

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