washingtonpost.com
U.S. Outreach On Rough Seas Off Western Africa
Naval Effort Seeks to Build Stability, Trust in Strategic Region

By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 21, 2009

PORT GENTIL, Gabon -- It took the Gabonese sailors days to get one of their small African country's few patrol boats fueled up. But once they had zoomed out into the Atlantic, it was less than an hour before they spotted trouble. There on the horizon was a blue trawler, which they soon found was manned by a Chinese 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 seaborne lawbreakers.

But the exercise last month was made possible by the United States, which bought gas for the boat and organized the patrol squad's training from a hulking Navy ship that was docked nearby. The USS Nashville had stopped at this coastal oil town during a five-month mission to train navies on Africa's western edge to police the Gulf of Guinea, which military officials and analysts warn could become as anarchic as the pirate-infested seas off Somalia, on the continent's opposite coast.

The two-year-old effort is one window into Africa's growing strategic importance to the United States, which last year launched a controversial command on the continent that officials said would focus on preventing wars as much as fighting them. In the Gulf of Guinea, officials say, helping African navies could promote stability, build economies that will require less U.S. aid and secure shipping routes in a region that sends as much crude oil to the United States as does the Persian Gulf.

"The majority of people on this ship are there to ensure that the sea lines of communication, which essentially means commerce, which essentially means economies, are safe," said Tushar R. Tembe, the Nashville's captain. "So that years from now, maybe the United States Navy won't have to come down here to patrol the seas."

The waters off Western Africa are plagued with problems. Illegal fishing -- which Somalia's pirates also cite as one reason for their attacks -- strips an estimated $1 billion in yearly revenue from sub-Saharan Africa. Desperate migrants pack into small boats for often deadly journeys north to Europe or south from Benin, Togo or Ivory Coast to relatively prosperous Gabon. South American traffickers shipping drugs to Europe have made the failed state of Guinea-Bissau a key transit stop.

Military officials acknowledge that the goal of the U.S. effort, dubbed the Africa Partnership Station, is daunting. The governments of this region, which stretches from Senegal south to Angola, include some of the world's most corrupt. Nearly all have weak navies and maritime laws, poor communications technology and little money.

Obvious Obstacles

Some of those obstacles were apparent during the Gabonese fisheries-patrol exercise. The trawler had no catch log, as required by law. Among the 19,000 pounds of fish found on it were 450 pounds of shrimp, which the vessel was not licensed to catch.

But Gabonese law does not specify how a log is to be kept or what percentage of a catch can be a "non-target species" -- loopholes likely to help the crew escape punishment. Back on shore, a fishing inspector, whose elegant suit indicated he spent little time at the docks, quickly declared the boat Gabonese-owned, called the owner and said the owner did indeed have the necessary paperwork -- in his office, not on the boat.

"They are going to give money to someone," said Lt. Cmdr. Antonio Mourinha, a Portuguese naval officer working with the U.S.-led mission. "It happens all over the world."

Gulf of Guinea waters are now the world's most perilous after Somalia's, the International Maritime Bureau says. That is largely due to robberies and kidnappings in Nigeria's oil-rich Niger Delta by seafaring militants who many experts say are aided by government and military officials. Their attacks have cut Nigeria's oil exports by about 20 percent since 2006 and have recently spread south to Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea.

That worries Equatorial Guinea's neighbor Gabon, a former French colony of 1.5 million people. Oil wealth and the nearly 42-year rule of President Omar Bongo, who Western diplomats say has used cash to quell opposition, have kept the country one of the most peaceful in a rough neighborhood. But illegal fishing is common, as are the boatloads of unauthorized migrants lured by stability. And Gabon's oil could become a target of rebels from the north.

"We never know what might happen," said Lt. j.g. Moussavou Ghislain, an officer in the country's 400-member navy. "We have never had war here."

On a recent day, Ghislain gave a tour of the fleet at this oil town's crumbling naval base, the main one in Gabon. It did not take long.

Several defunct vessels served as floating barracks. One of two French-built patrol ships had recently been repaired; the other had been "out of order" for 14 years. Nearby, American sailors were affixing U.S.-donated mounts to the four patrol boats -- three of which worked -- so the Gabonese could display their machine guns.

Ghislain said one of the navy's biggest problems is procuring fuel, the absence of which delayed the fisheries exercise for several days. The government does not provide enough for regular patrols, he said, adding, "We cannot go very far."

Wooing Nations

In Gabon last month, U.S. Marines and Gabonese naval forces practiced rescuing the government from rebels in a land-and-sea battle scenario. But most of the training -- including small-boat maintenance, maritime law enforcement and oil spill prevention -- involved no high-seas action. The Nashville does no counterpiracy operations and steered clear of the Niger Delta on a stop in Nigeria.

In fact, the U.S. ship's mission appears to be as much about wooing Africa as about teaching maritime security. Many African countries expressed deep suspicion of the United States' intentions for its Africa Command, or Africom, after it was announced in 2007.

At each port of call, a U.S. Navy band performs, doctors do checkups and sailors refurbish buildings. Officers stress that the mission is international -- about 10 percent of the Nashville's 500-member crew is made up of naval officers from Europe, 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 the mission commander, Capt. Cynthia M. Thebaud.

"It's about changing attitudes, but not in a dictatorial way," said Mark Fitzsimmons, a British naval commander who is one of the ship's top officers.

After meeting with fierce resistance from several African nations, Africom shelved plans to build a headquarters in Africa and is staying in Germany for now, according to military officials. Furor among African leaders has diminished, and this year one of the most vocal early detractors, Nigeria, invited the Nashville to visit.

Lt. Cmdr. George Azuike, a Nigerian officer serving on the ship, acknowledged that some of his compatriots believe U.S. interest is centered on securing oil but said, "We have to sell oil, and somebody has to buy it." A Sierra Leonean officer said countries that "walk around with a begging bowl" are in no position to isolate themselves.

"But the challenge right now is we have to get more African navies inside this, so that the Africans can be not just partners but the people acting toward safety and security," said J.P. Tine, a Senegalese naval officer who serves on the Nashville. "If not, it's just going to be a U.S.-led project . . . just another foreign organization coming around."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company