Thursday, April 30, 2009

Africa's other pirate problem

The attack on the Maersk Alabama focused the United States' attention on the piracy problem off the coast of Somalia. But, as The Economist magazine noted in A clear and present danger last week, Western Africa has its own piracy problem as well, and it’s one that could have a far greater long-term impact on American foreign policy.

The why is simple – oil. The countries of West Africa currently supply about 20% of the oil the United States imports, which is basically the same amount as America currently imports from the Persian Gulf. It is projected that by the middle of the next decade West Africa will become the United States' chief source of foreign oil, supplying as much as a quarter of all America's oil imports. And while there is concern that the Gulf States may be running dry, new sources of oil keep being discovered in sub-Saharan Africa.

The "how" of the West Africa pirate problem is more complex. Piracy exists along the east coast of Africa because Somalia is a failed state that hasn't really had a functioning government in almost two decades; that lack of rule of law gives the pirates a safe base of operations.

There aren't any failed states per se in West Africa, but there's plenty of instability. Liberia and Sierra Leone are trying to recover from long civil wars, their resources are dedicated to keeping the peace on land rather than enforcing the law at sea; Nigeria has been struggling with its own rebel movement in its oil-rich south, rebels who often target the facilities and personnel of international oil companies operating in the Niger River delta; Guinea-Bissau is now being referred to as Africa's first narco-state - Latin American drug cartels have, essentially, taken over portions of the country and are now using it as a hub to ship drugs into Europe - with the support of at least some members of Guinea-Bissau's government.

All of that instability means that, like in Somalia, pirates have a fairly free hand to operate in the waters of the Gulf of Guinea (which stretches along much of the West African coastline) - the countries in the neighborhood have too many of their own problems ashore to dedicate much of their resources to enforcing the law at sea (or in the case of Guinea-Bissau they just don't seem to have much interest in enforcing the law to begin with).

Like in Somalia, the conditions that enable piracy to occur in West Africa have been a long time coming and are at least somewhat the fault of the "developed" nations of the world for actively ignoring Africa’s problems. Both Liberia and Sierra Leone suffered for decades through coups and civil wars, yet little was done by the global community to stop the fighting and bring peace - in fact the trade of illegally mined diamonds largely fueled the conflicts in both countries. Several years ago the United Nations warned that Guinea-Bissau was in danger of becoming a narco-state, the country languished at the bottom of the UN's development index. Many of the country's law enforcement officers were faced with a choice: accept money from drug traffickers or do their job for a government that wasn't paying them - for many it turned out to be a simple choice.

The United States response to the growing West Africa piracy problem has been the USS Nashville. As The Economist reports, the amphibious transport ship is on a five-month tour of the region to as the “Africa Partnership Station” - providing training to the navies of the countries along the Gulf of Guinea. No doubt the training will be helpful, but one has to question how worthwhile it is in the long run if the African countries don't have the resources to then patrol their own waters?

As West Africa plays a larger and larger role in America's energy policy, the chances of a pirate attack against American interests also increases. When it does happen, expect the same type of panicked response, the same calls to do something that we heard about Somalia following the Maersk Alabama attack. Keep in mind though that, like Somalia, the problems in this region have been developing for years; they've developed, in part, because we haven't wanted to invest the time or effort in preventing them from happening in the first place.

And long-term problems don't have overnight solutions.
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