May 03, 2008

Nigeria, US ties may chart AFRICOM path

Amid opposition to AFRICOM, Nigeria is pushing a different vision of military partnership that could make US troops less visible but still effective, Dulue Mbachu writes for ISN Security Watch.

By Dulue Mbachu in Lagos for ISN Security Watch (02/05/08)

US Africa Command (AFRICOM) envisages US military cooperation with African governments where possible and direct interventions in the continent as necessary; but the idea of US troops on African soil rankles observers across the Africa, rendering local leaders reluctant to offer their countries as bases.

AFRICOM, which is currently based in Stuttgart, Germany, was established in 2007 by the Bush administration. It is scheduled to be fully operational by September this year.

A different vision of military partnership with Washington being espoused by Nigerian President Umaru Yar'Adua appears set to get AFRICOM going and possibly chart its future. During a visit to the White House in December last year, Yar'Adua argued that what Africa needed was support for standby forces working under the various regional economic groupings in the continent to deal with perceived security threats without direct US military involvement.

"We shall partner AFRICOM to assist not only Nigeria but also the African continent to actualize its peace and security initiatives," Yar'Adua told reporters during his White House visit. Amid media reports in Nigeria that his statement meant acceptance of AFRICOM, Yar'Adua insisted upon his return that he had not changed his government's earlier position against the stationing of US troops in Africa.

"I did not accept AFRICOM in my discussions with Bush," he said in a Nigerian radio interview. "I asked for assistance and told Bush that we have our plans to establish bases for African countries. We asked for [weapons training] and training to establish our bases to be managed by our people," Yar'Adua added, mentioning specifically plans by Gulf of Guinea countries to set up a joint security force.
A partnership sealed by oil

For the Nigerian leader there are indeed pressing reasons to seek US military partnership in the country's Atlantic waters.

The southern Niger Delta coastal areas, which account for nearly all of Nigeria's oil output, juts into the Gulf of Guinea. Militants bred on decades of discontent on the part of impoverished locals who feel cheated out of the oil wealth pumped from their land, have taken to armed insurgency, hitting oil exports hard. Half of the exports of Africa's leading producer go to the US, whose imports from the Gulf of Guinea are expected to jump from the current 15 percent to 25 percent of all oil imports by 2015.

The prevailing lawlessness has spilled over into the maritime corridor across the Gulf of Guinea, threatening other oil producing countries such as Equatorial Guinea, Cameroon, Gabon, Sao Tome and Principe.

Recent figures released by the International Maritime Bureau show that Nigeria's Atlantic waters now have the worst records of piracy, surpassing former leaders Indonesia and Somalia. Most of the attacks in Nigerian waters have targeted oil and fishing vessels.

Signs are emerging that Yar'Adua's model may be acceptable to the US, offering it a chance to maintain an effective but less obtrusive military presence in Africa.

It is an option the US military recently tested with its Africa Partnership Station set up in November 2007 to help train West and Central African countries to protect their coastal areas and maritime resources. Under the program, the warship USS Fort McHenry and a companion ship, High Speed Vessel 2 Swift, have visited 14 West and Central African countries in the past seven months to train with their navies.

The presence of the warships in Africa form part of a new US military policy to maintain a "persistent presence" in the Gulf of Guinea through continuous deployment of warships in the region, according a 13 April report in the military newspaper Stars and Stripes, citing Fort McHenry Commander Navy Capt John Nowell.

Fears of a hostile reception in Africa at the start of the mission, born of opposition to AFRICOM, so far have not materialized, according to Nowell.

"We found there actually ended up being little suspicion or fear about Africa Partnership Station, about bases or expanding the footprint," Nowell was quoted as saying. "Every place we went, we were asked 'When are you coming back? Can you stay longer next time? We want to partner.'"
MEND threatens to heighten attacks

The reception was different when the High Speed Vessel 2 Swift arrived at the Nigerian port of Lagos the following week.

The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), the main armed group active in the oil region, said that militant attacks against major oil pipelines run by Royal Dutch Shell and Chevron Corp. subsidiaries at about the same time were intended to "welcome" the US vessel.

"Mr President, your warships do not intimidate us. Instead they only embolden our resolve in fighting the Goliaths of the world that support injustice," MEND spokesman Jomo Gbomo wrote in an open letter to Bush, which was emailed to reporters.

MEND fears Yar'Adua's apparent rapport with Washington will translate into US military support in containing its insurgency without addressing its demands for more regional autonomy and control of oil resources.

Well aware of the impact of its armed campaign on oil prices, MEND in turn is threatening to escalate its attacks on the oil industry to help draw attention to its cause knowing the "ripple effect will touch your economy," as the group said in the letter to Bush.

A string of other attacks on oil pipelines claimed by MEND helped drive global crude oil prices above US$115 a barrel.

Faced with the escalating violence threatening Nigeria's main source of revenue, Yar'Adua is pressing for quick moves to set up a Gulf of Guinea Force drawn from the militaries of Nigeria, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Congo Republic, Sao Tome and Principe and Angola with US support.

Since the beginning of the year, the Nigerian leader has met twice with his Equatorial Guinea counterpart, Theodoro Obiang Nguema, who was the target of a failed mercenary coup a few years ago. On each occasion, Yar'Adua expressed impatience with the pace of progress in setting up the force.

Another complementary effort known as the Gulf of Guinea Security Strategy - involving the UK, the US, Canada, France, the Netherlands, Norway and Switzerland - aims to stamp out the theft and sale of crude oil in the Niger Delta, believed to be the major source of funds for the armed groups active in the region.

The most recent meeting of the grouping in Abuja in March, focused on how to identify and track the movement of illegal crude cargoes in the international market in order to discourage their buyers.

"Yar'Adua's approach appears to be to use every force he could leverage upon, including US, domestic and regional might, to end the oil region uprising," Alex Powell, a London-based security analyst who advises oil companies working in the Gulf of Guinea, told ISN Security Watch. "This appears to have pushed the delta militants into more desperate action, such as the blowing up of pipelines, which have dramatic effects on oil prices."

If the Nigerian government is able to neutralize the militants without direct US involvement in protecting oil exports, it will make a good case for the idea of supporting African forces to maintain security in the continent, said Powell. But with largely demoralized troops under corrupt governments in the region, it is unlikely that the proposed Gulf of Guinea Guard will suffice.

"The more the regional governments are unable to maintain security, the more likely it is the US may be forced to intervene directly in its own interest," Powell concluded.



Dulue Mbachu is a correspondent for ISN Security Watch based in Nigeria. He has reported for international media outlets including The Washington Post and the Associated Press.

No comments: