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The Lure of Oil and the Drug War: Why Washington Has Joined the Battle For West Africa

The U.S. is turning its sights to West Africa, where the Obama administration is building up a vast array of military resources.

A map of West Africa.
Photo Credit: Mondo Magic/Wikimedia Commons


With the winding down of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Washington is turning its sights elsewhere.  Quietly, the Obama administration is building up a vast array of military resources in West Africa, and specifically in Portuguese-speaking Lusophone countries.  Reportedly, the Pentagon wants to establish a monitoring station in the Cape Verde islands, while further south in the Gulf of Guinea U.S. ships and personnel are patrolling local waters.  Concerned lest it draw too much attention to itself, the Pentagon has avoided constructing large military installations and focused instead on a so-called “lily pad” strategy of smaller bases.  In São Tomé and Príncipe, an island chain in the Gulf of Guinea and former Portuguese colony, the Pentagon may install one such “under the radar” base, and U.S. Navy Seabees are already engaged in construction work at the local airport.

Just why has the Obama administration invested so much time and effort in this corner of the globe?  To be sure, controlling remote “lily pads” may come in handy in the battle against Islamist militants operating farther inland in such countries as Mali and Niger.  Washington also wants to counteract drug smuggling emanating from West Africa, a volatile and politically unstable region.  Guinea-Bissau, a former Portuguese colony, has in recent years turned into a cocaine hub, and the United Nations has called the country a “narco-state.”  Guinea-Bissau is geographically situated at Africa’s most westerly point, and South American smugglers are thought to transport drug shipments from here on to Cape Verde and then to Europe. 

Reportedly, Brazil has become South America’s largest net exporter of drugs to Africa.  However, in recent years African traffickers have begun to produce methamphetamines and have muscled in on their Latin counterparts, wresting an increasingly large portion over the drug smuggling business.  The Africans ship cocaine by sea and have assumed international control over cocaine exports as far away as the Brazilian city of São Paulo.  Brazilian drug traffickers, meanwhile, are left with the domestic side of the business and are forced to sell coke to locals.

Oil Intrigue in the Gulf of Guinea

To be sure then, the U.S. is interested in patrolling West African waters in an effort to stem the tide of drug traffic. There may be other, less public reasons for the U.S. military buildup in the region, however.  In an effort to ease its dependence on the volatile Middle East, the U.S. is looking elsewhere for its oil and is likely to receive a whopping 25 percent of its imported petroleum from Africa by 2015.  Former American Vice Admiral and Deputy Commander of the U.S. Africa Command Robert Moeller has stated that protecting “the free flow of natural resources from Africa to the global market” is highly important, as well as forestalling oil disruption.  What is more, the U.S. must now confront a rising China, a nation which is also interested in securing oil deposits in West Africa. 

In its drive to acquire natural resources, China has been pursuing offshore oil exploration contracts in the politically unstable nation of São Tomé and Príncipe.  In 2009, Chinese petroleum corporation Sinopec acquired Swiss company Addax which gave Beijing control over four oil blocs in the São Tomé and Príncipe-Nigeria joint development zone.  The Sinopec purchase in the Gulf of Guinea made China the leading player in the São Tomé and Príncipe oil sector.  Whether the islands will actually take off as a major oil producer is still unclear, though drilling is under way and commercial production is expected to begin within a few years.

If São Tomé and Príncipe take off as a major oil supplier, China will certainly be well positioned to reap maximum reward from the petroleum bonanza.  However, Beijing will also have to reckon with a growing U.S. military profile on the islands.  Recently, U.S. Navy Seabees have been renovating a boat ramp on São Tomé’s coast guard base and building a guard house on the premises.  Meanwhile, the Pentagon and State Department have installed a new surface surveillance system on the islands.  São Tomé and Príncipe is the first African nation to install the program and to integrate such technology into its overall maritime safety program.

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