To all you security/piracy buffs outthere, the “USS Nashville” referred to here is the ship whichbrought us the wheelchairs from the Mobility Project in WashingtonState last month.
On a separate but related note, OmarBongo, the Gabonese strongman of 40+ years, appears to be on hisdeathbed (scarcely if at all mentioned in the US press). Once heexits, what will happen in the neighborhood? Staytuned!!
STEP-UP in Sao Tome
U.S. Outreach On Rough Seas Off Western Africa
Naval Effort Seeks to BuildStability, Trust in Strategic Region
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 21, 2009
Thursday, May 21, 2009
PORT GENTIL, Gabon — It took theGabonese sailors days to get one of their small African country’s fewpatrol boats fueled up. But once they had zoomed out into the Atlantic, it was less than an hour before they spotted trouble. There on thehorizon was a blue trawler, which they soon found was manned by aChinese crew, brimming with fish and lacking the required permits,catch logs and immigration documents.
“We could do this all day,”one Gabonese officer said about tracking down seabornelawbreakers.
But the exercise last month was madepossible by the United States , which bought gas for the boat andorganized the patrol squad’s training from a hulking Navy ship thatwas docked nearby. The USS Nashville had stopped at this coastal oiltown during a five-month mission to train navies on Africa’s westernedge to police the Gulf of Guinea , which military officials andanalysts warn could become as anarchic as the pirate-infested seas offSomalia , on the continent’s opposite coast.
The two-year-old effort is onewindow into Africa’s growing strategic importance to the United States, which last year launched a controversial command on the continentthat officials said would focus on preventing wars as much as fightingthem. In the Gulf of Guinea , officials say, helping African naviescould promote stability, build economies that will require less U.S.aid and secure shipping routes in a region that sends as much crudeoil to the United States as does the Persian Gulf .
“The majority of people on thisship are there to ensure that the sea lines of communication, whichessentially means commerce, which essentially means economies, aresafe,” said Tushar R. Tembe, the Nashville ‘s captain. “Sothat years from now, maybe the United States Navy won’t have to comedown here to patrol the seas.”
The waters off Western Africa areplagued with problems. Illegal fishing — which Somalia ‘s piratesalso cite as one reason for their attacks — strips an estimated $1billion in yearly revenue from sub-Saharan Africa . Desperate migrantspack into small boats for often deadly journeys north to Europe orsouth from Benin , Togo or Ivory Coast to relatively prosperous Gabon. South American traffickers shipping drugs to Europe have made thefailed state of Guinea-Bissau a key transit stop.
Military officials acknowledge thatthe goal of the U.S. effort, dubbed the Africa Partnership Station, isdaunting. The governments of this region, which stretches from Senegalsouth to Angola , include some of the world’s most corrupt. Nearly allhave weak navies and maritime laws, poor communications technology andlittle money.
Some of those obstacles wereapparent during the Gabonese fisheries-patrol exercise. The trawlerhad no catch log, as required by law. Among the 19,000 pounds of fishfound on it were 450 pounds of shrimp, which the vessel was notlicensed to catch.
But Gabonese law does not specifyhow a log is to be kept or what percentage of a catch can be a”non-target species” — loopholes likely to help the crewescape punishment. Back on shore, a fishing inspector, whose elegantsuit indicated he spent little time at the docks, quickly declared theboat Gabonese-owned, called the owner and said the owner did indeedhave the necessary paperwork — in his office, not on theboat.
“They are going to give moneyto someone,” said Lt. Cmdr. Antonio Mourinha, a Portuguese navalofficer working with the U.S.-led mission. “It happens all overthe world.”
Gulf of Guinea waters are now theworld’s most perilous after Somalia ‘s, the International MaritimeBureau says. That is largely due to robberies and kidnappings inNigeria ‘s oil-rich Niger Delta by seafaring militants who manyexperts say are aided by government and military officials. Theirattacks have cut Nigeria ‘s oil exports by about 20 percent since 2006and have recently spread south to Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea.
That worries Equatorial Guinea ‘sneighbor Gabon , a former French colony of 1.5 million people. Oilwealth and the nearly 42-year rule of President Omar Bongo, whoWestern diplomats say has used cash to quell opposition, have kept thecountry one of the most peaceful in a rough neighborhood. But illegalfishing is common, as are the boatloads of unauthorized migrants luredby stability. And Gabon ‘s oil could become a target of rebels fromthe north.
“We never know what mighthappen,” said Lt. j.g. Moussavou Ghislain, an officer in thecountry’s 400-member navy. “We have never had warhere.”
On a recent day, Ghislain gave atour of the fleet at this oil town’s crumbling naval base, the mainone in Gabon . It did not take long.
Several defunct vessels served asfloating barracks. One of two French-built patrol ships had recentlybeen repaired; the other had been “out of order” for 14years. Nearby, American sailors were affixing U.S.-donated mounts tothe four patrol boats — three of which worked — so the Gabonesecould display their machine guns.
Ghislain said one of the navy’sbiggest problems is procuring fuel, the absence of which delayed thefisheries exercise for several days. The government does not provideenough for regular patrols, he said, adding, “We cannot go veryfar.”
In Gabon last month, U.S. Marinesand Gabonese naval forces practiced rescuing the government fromrebels in a land-and-sea battle scenario. But most of the training –including small-boat maintenance, maritime law enforcement and oilspill prevention — involved no high-seas action. The Nashville doesno counterpiracy operations and steered clear of the Niger Delta on astop in Nigeria .
In fact, the U.S. ship’s missionappears to be as much about wooing Africa as about teaching maritimesecurity. Many African countries expressed deep suspicion of theUnited States ‘ intentions for its Africa Command, or Africom, afterit was announced in 2007.
At each port of call, a U.S. Navyband performs, doctors do checkups and sailors refurbish buildings.Officers stress that the mission is international — about 10 percentof the Nashville ‘s 500-member crew is made up of naval officers fromEurope, Africa and Brazil. The ship visits countries only by invitation,not to preach but to show “our African partners” that Africa”is no longer subordinate to other regions,” said themission commander, Capt. Cynthia M. Thebaud.
“It’s about changing attitudes,but not in a dictatorial way,” said Mark Fitzsimmons, a Britishnaval commander who is one of the ship’s top officers.
After meeting with fierce resistancefrom several African nations, Africom shelved plans to build aheadquarters in Africa and is staying in Germany for now, according to military officials.Furor among African leaders has diminished, and this year one of themost vocal early detractors, Nigeria , invited the Nashville tovisit.
Lt. Cmdr. George Azuike, a Nigerianofficer serving on the ship, acknowledged that some of his compatriotsbelieve U.S. interest is centered on securing oil but said, “Wehave to sell oil, and somebody has to buy it.” A Sierra Leoneanofficer said countries that “walk around with a begging bowl”are in no position to isolate themselves.
“But the challenge right now iswe have to get more African navies inside this, so that the Africanscan be not just partners but the people acting toward safety andsecurity,” said J.P. Tine, a Senegalese naval officer who serveson the Nashville. “If not, it’s just going to be a U.S.-ledproject . . . just another foreign organization comingaround.”