US helps African navies with floating academy

Men in blue overalls haul on the ropes alongside American crewmen sporting hardhats shaped as Stetsons and decorated in the stars and stripes.

“Pull harder! Coil the ropes!” one of the Americans barks at the “ship riders”, a term used for the West African sailors aboard the US amphibious landing vessel as she slips her moorings in the port of Dakar.

This is a floating academy, part of an effort by the US military to train local navies and coast guards to combat rising instability in the Gulf of Guinea — an increasingly important source of oil and other raw materials for Western markets, which has drawn huge international investment.

The United States says the destabilising effects of piracy, drug-smuggling, and illegal fishing in the area are also costing West and Central African coastal economies billions of dollars each year in lost revenues.

“You have an area that is traditionally a landward-focused region which is awakening to the impact of the maritime domain,” said Captain Cindy Thebaud, commander of the US Navy’s Destroyer Squadron Six Zero and head of the project.

After two weeks of training in Senegal, the African officers and deckhands will spend a week at sea on the USS Gunston Hall alongside their US counterparts, learning skills ranging from basic navigation to anti-piracy techniques.

The training is part of US efforts to make Gulf of Guinea maritime security more robust but, with navies often coming low in the pecking order in African militaries, there is a need for increased investment in boats and other equipment.

“There are challenges with resource allocations everywhere in the region,” Thebaud said. “But the education and the visibility is continuing to increase and, bit by bit, we are seeing increases in allocations in resources.”

Threats huge, ignored
The Gulf of Guinea, which runs down from West Africa through Nigeria and Angola, is becoming increasingly important due to its vast potential energy reserves.

Ghana will soon join traditional Gulf of Guinea oil producers Nigeria, Angola, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea and Cameroon, while Liberia and Sierra Leone have also made offshore energy finds.

Critics say US policy is purely in self-interest, as the world’s top consumer will rely on the region for a quarter of its oil supplies within the next five years.

But sailors said countries in the region were keen on the project as they understood the threat insecurity posed to governance and economic growth.

“[Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea] is not the same level as Somalia but it could have the same consequences,” said Lieutenant Commander Emmanuel Bell Bell, a Cameroonian officer onboard.

Earlier this month Cameroon partly blamed piracy for a 13% fall in oil production last year.

“In Cameroon we have shipping and oil. The slightest act of piracy creates an atmosphere of fear. It could lead to things shutting down,” Bell Bell added.

The training is part of Africom, the US command centre for Africa, but European nations have begun to take part in an effort to broaden the programme and cooperation.

Commander David Salisbury, a British naval officer, said a thwarted hijacking of a ship off Benin and a Ghanaian raid on a fishing vessel in December were evidence of improvements. But he warned that threats were “huge and had been largely ignored” and “we should talk about progress in decades”.

‘Grandpa Zodiacs’
The size and power of the USS Gunston Hall — a heavily armed ship that can deploy smaller landing vessels, machine gun-mounted speedboats and hundreds of soldiers — is far cry from the kit most of the sailors onboard are used to.

“We are working with grandpa zodiacs with 42-horse-power motors,” said Blawah Charles of Liberia’s newly established Coast Guard.

Some navies in the region are so limited in boats and fuel that their patrols cannot venture far out to sea and pose little threat to illegal fishing vessels or smugglers.

Instability in the Gulf of Guinea has also attracted the interests of private military contractors.

US private security company MPRI, a division of L-3, earlier this year announced it had won a multi-year contract worth $250-million to improve maritime security for Equatorial Guinea.

Some fear this pointed to increased competition and the potential for military confrontation. But Thebaud said private military companies’ involvement would be “complementary”. — Reuters

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