America has its sight on West Africa’s Gulf of Guinea

Sep 21, 2002 02:00 AM

In the run-up to a possible US-led offensive on Iraq, American oil companies and strategic planners have their sights on another gulf -- West Africa's Gulf of Guinea, a booming backwater surpassing Saudi Arabia in oil exports to the United States. Giant US oil rigs and tankers offshore, and American oil roustabouts sporting coveralls and the flat drawls of Oklahoma and Texas onshore, are vanguards of a US-led oil boom in the region. It's one the United States is acknowledging as a strategic interest to be safeguarded militarily.
"It's like the Persian Gulf in the 1960s," said Paul Michael Wihbey, a resource specialist who has led Washington- and Jerusalem-based lobby groups in urging the United States to turn from Mideast to West African oil. Washington and the oil-hungry Asian economies "are starting to recognize that there are serious problems in the Persian Gulf and they have to diversify supplies. And one of the most attractive areas is West Africa," Wihbey said.

West Africa, led by Nigeria, already supplies the United States with 15 % of its oil -- approximating Saudi Arabia's share of the US market. The US National Intelligence Council projects US oil supplies from West Africa will swell to 25 % by 2015 -- more than from the Persian Gulf.
Nowhere is the Africa boom more dramatic than in the torpid former Spanish colony of Equatorial Guinea -- suddenly, one of the world's fastest-growing economies at a staggering 65 % a year. A palm-fringed enclave run for two decades by a single dictator, Equatorial Guinea's Spanish-style capital is lit night and day by US oil companies' ghostly orange flare.
The flame is natural gas, burn-off from a US methanol plant. The plant and a petroleum pipeline now inching its way across West Africa's Cameroon make up the two largest US capital investments ever in sub-Saharan Africa.

Large oil companies have snapped up promising fields from Morocco and Western Sahara down the Atlantic coast to Angola. ExxonMobil expects to triple its Africa production over the next years, said Leigh Evans, spokeswoman for the oil giant. ExxonMobil "has a major and growing commitment to West Africa, a region significant to US interests and ExxonMobil's long-term future," Evans said.
Amid the boom, US views of Africa's importance have changed. Then-presidential candidate George W. Bush declared in 2000 that Africa "doesn't fit into the national strategic interests as far as I can see them."
This year, however, Walter Kansteiner, US assistant secretary of state for African affairs, called it "undeniable... that African oil has become of national strategic interest to us."

Why the interest in African oil now? It's high quality, for one. For the eastern United States, shipping distance is half that of oil from the Persian Gulf. Additionally, the key West African wells are offshore, away from any social or political troubles.
And ever more crucially, the Gulf of Guinea is far from the turbulence of the Persian Gulf or problematic Central Asian pipelines. West African supply already is enough to help ease the impact of any cut-off of Iraqi production in the event of a US-led attack. In coming years, it could offset US dependence on production in the Mideast as a whole, proponents say.
"It's clearly in our interest to diversify our energy supply, especially in turbulent times," said Ed Royce, a California Republican who is chairman of the House of Representatives Africa subcommittee. That includes even those countries the United States has shunned, like Equatorial Guinea and its coup-installed leader, Teodoro Obiang, whose government's torture and incarceration of the opposition has been labelled "ruthless" by the US government.

West African governments have welcomed foreign oil companies. They insist the oil wealth will be shared for the betterment of all. "Due to the fact money from the oil has been received, Equatorial Guinea will be able to realize its projects as a government," said Alfonso Nsue Mokuy, vice-minister for radio, TV and newspapers. Pressed, however, he was able to point to only one specific project -- a paved road from the airport to the capital, standard investment for African leaders wishing to impress visitors.
British-based watch group Global Witness, however, says the profits, like the oil, are offshore -- in foreign bank accounts, with virtually none returning to West Africa. Rights groups say the oil wealth to date has funded chiefly its leaders' excesses and regional wars. They urge the United States to press the governments for reforms. Increasingly, as well, the US military is being encouraged to help protect the US oil stake in West Africa.
Royce cited what he called "common security interests," and also noted: "Africa is a growing interest to the United States as we combat terrorism."

This year, the State Department quietly approved the US-based Military Professional Resources, a private firm run by Pentagon retirees, to train those protecting Equatorial Guinea's coast and offshore oil wells.
African oil evangelists like Wihbey urge Washington to establish an Atlantic military command on the island nation of Sao Tome and Principe to safeguard the region. In July, US Gen. Carlton Fulford, deputy commander-in-chief of the European Command, visited Sao Tome for what were called planning talks on security in the Gulf of Guinea. A month later, Sao Tome's president announced his country had agreed to stationing of a US naval base. The US State Department denied that.

Source: The Canadian Press
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