The United States is boosting its naval presence along the lawless West African coast to combat terrorism, illegal migration and drug trafficking and to secure U.S. oil interests, senior naval and coastguard officials said.Arrow on map points to Gulf of Guinea.
Amid concerns that weak government controls in some West African states has made the region fertile for drug cartels, people smugglers and Islamist groups, the U.S. navy command in Europe has focused its activities southward.
"The clear majority of shipping coming into the United States is coming off the coast of West Africa into the Gulf of Mexico," Vice-Admiral John Stufflebeem, commander of the U.S. Sixth Fleet based in the Mediterranean, said on Saturday.
"So we are interested in this (region) from a security perspective from our own homeland, and ... in commerce and quite frankly, oil is one part of it," he told Reuters.
The Gulf of Guinea, which includes oil producers like Angola, Equatorial Guinea and Nigeria, is central to U.S. efforts to reduce dependency on Middle Eastern exports.
It currently supplies around 15 percent of U.S. oil consumption, and that is forecast to rise to 25 percent by 2015, although resource-hungry China is also looking to corner oil supply from the region, notably in Angola.
To reflect the growing strategic importance of Africa, the U.S. military will launch a separate Africa Command (AFRICOM) in October, to be based in Germany for its first year but likely to move to the continent thereafter.
In a joint naval and coastguard initiative, the two vice-admirals were touring six West African countries -- Mauritania, Senegal, Benin, Togo, Sao Tome and Gabon -- to build maritime cooperation ahead of the year-long trial deployment of a U.S. navy vessel to the region in October.
The amphibious ship, capable of carrying training teams and smaller boats, will act as a mobile base along the coast, in a test of a global naval project dubbed Global Fleet Station to expand the U.S. maritime presence for a reasonably low cost.
The commanders were also encouraging local governments to adopt an electronic tagging system for ships, known as Automatic Identification Systems (AIS), as a cheap means of tracking shipping in their waters aimed at tackling smuggling and piracy.
"When we talk to major corporations like oil companies or insurance companies ..., there is a growing concern about the safety and security of their enterprises," Stufflebeem said, singling out Nigeria, the world's third worst nation for piracy.
"There is a growing intersection of illegal activities that cross over into terrorism. Terrorists are using illegal activities to raise money," said Stufflebeem, citing diamond trading in Africa and drug trafficking from South America.
Stufflebeem said the AIS initiative should be complimented with a network of radar stations, such as the $18 million site being built by the U.S. government for Sao Tome. However, he played down speculation of a U.S. naval base on the archipelago: "We are not looking for a permanent presence."
Oil flow map from 1997 show flow of oil of Gulf of Guinea to Gulf of Mexico. Blue arrow points to area of oil exports to U.S.