AFRICOM-led 33-nation naval exercise in oil-rich Gulf of Guinea
U.S. Africa Command started the tenth iteration of its Obangame Express naval exercise with an opening ceremony in the Ghanaian capital of Accra on March 19 and ended it on March 27.
U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) grew out of naval patrols and exercises in the Gulf of Guinea off western Africa at the beginning of the century. It was first developed by U.S. European Command (EUCOM), which shares its top military commander with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and whose area of responsibility is largely that of NATO outside North America. When it reached full operational capability in 2008 AFRICOM also absorbed a small handful of African nations (mainly island states in the Indian Ocean) formerly assigned to Central Command and then-Pacific Command. The rest of Africa had been assigned to EUCOM.
The U.S. interest in the Gulf of Guinea and its Bight of Benin is one of global geopolitical significance.
In the year of AFRICOM’s full activation the Financial Times ran an article titled “The new scramble for Africa’s resources.” It reported that Africa’s share of world oil production was projected to increase from 12 percent in 2006 to 30 percent in the upcoming years. Not surprisingly, then, the article stated “The US military has recently started focusing on West Africa,” as well as identifying the Gulf of Guinea as a rival to Russian and Middle Eastern oil and natural gas and China as an emerging oil-consuming rival to the West in the area.
In the following year the Financial Times ran another article titled “US seeks to underpin oil supply from Africa,” which cited American government officials estimating that within six years the U.S. would receive 25% of all its oil imports from that region. As far back as 2006 the U.S. Geological Survey estimated the Gulf of Guinea to contain 1,004 million barrels of undiscovered oil, 10,071 billion cubic feet of gas, and 282 million barrels of natural gas.
It was at that time and for that reason that ships from the Sixth Fleet attached to EUCOM began regular visits to the Gulf of Guinea, often accompanied by vessels from NATO allies and former colonial powers in Africa – Belgium, Britain, France, Portugal, Spain and Germany – a relationship that continues between AFRICOM and NATO, which will be seen below.
The recent Obangame Express 21 exercise, one of three AFRICOM-led multinational maritime exercises in Africa and the largest in Western Africa, is primarily conducted by U.S. Naval Forces Africa, which is permanently assigned to AFRICOM, as distinct from U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa/U.S. 6th Fleet assigned to EUCOM.
The exercise was a comprehensive maritime security one for which objectives include training for surveillance and interdiction, anti-piracy and other operations, but which more than any particular set of objectives was designed to consolidate interoperability between the naval forces of the U.S., other NATO members and local African nations to protect the interests of the U.S. and its NATO allies in the region.
The geostrategic and political reality of such exercises is best illustrated by which nations participated – and which didn’t. This year 33 or more nations were partners in the naval maneuvers and training: the U.S., it’s NATO allies Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal and Spain and 21 African states, including all those on the Gulf of Guinea, and Brazil. Of the nine European nations listed, all but Denmark and Poland formerly had colonies and other possessions in Africa.
The African counties participating were Angola, Benin, Cabo Verde, Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, the Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Morocco, Namibia, Nigeria, the Republic of Congo, Sao Tome & Principe, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Togo.
With their former colonial masters and those who had mandate and protectorates over them in parenthesis, they are again Angola (Portugal), Benin (France), Cabo Verde (Portugal), Cameroon (Britain, France and Germany), Cote d’Ivoire (France), Democratic Republic of Congo (Belgium), Equatorial Guinea (Spain), Gabon (France), the Gambia (Britain), Ghana (Britain), Guinea-Bissau (Portugal), Guinea-Conakry (France), Liberia (semi-colony of the U.S.), Morocco (France and Spain), Namibia (Germany), Nigeria (Britain), Republic of Congo (France), Sao Tome & Principe (Portugal), Senegal (France), Sierra Leone (Britain) and Togo (Germany and France).
It’s worth noting that of the seven Western countries mentioned in the preceding paragraph only Britain for some reason was absent, though it frequently participates in AFRICOM exercises. Brazil was the only non-NATO, non-African participant.
On shore Dutch, Polish, and Danish special forces trained with Ghanaian Navy Special Forces.
The West, and in most every instance the very nations that organized the first version of it, are in the thick of the New Scramble for Africa.