Africa’s Gulf of Guinea nations lack the ability to tackle mounting threats from piracy and kidnapping while the US, a major buyer of their oil, is restricted in its efforts to help them.
Myriad local conflicts, heavily armed gangs and weak states along west and central Africa’s coast have turned the Gulf Guinea, which will provide a quarter of US oil within five years, into a minefield.
Attacks by gunmen operating in the mangrove-lined creeks of Nigeria’s Niger Delta have slashed Nigeria’s oil output by at least 20 percent and, according to executives, driven the annual cost of oil services-related security there to US$3.5 billion.
But over the last year, other seafaring groups borrowing their tactics and firepower have taken attacks further afield, striking oil platforms, vessels, city center banks and even Equatorial Guinea’s presidential palace.
“The incidents of attacks outside Nigeria’s territorial waters, especially the shadowy attack on [the palace in] Malabo, have raised eyebrows and concerns,” said Philippe de Pontet, a Middle East and Africa analyst at the Eurasia Group.
“There is pretty serious concern in Washington and capitals elsewhere about the Gulf of Guinea,” he said.
The region hosts Nigeria and Angola, sub-Saharan Africa’s two largest oil producers, Gabon, Cameroon, the two Congos and Equatorial Guinea, an oil nation with aspirations in gas. Oil from land-locked Chad is also exported through the gulf.
Sub-Saharan Africa produced more than 9 million barrels of oil per day last year, with the Gulf of Guinea nations accounting for nearly 5 million of the total.
The US National Intelligence Council says the region will provide 25 percent of US oil by 2015. According to the International Maritime Bureau, the waters off Nigeria are already the second most dangerous in the world after Somalia.
As in Nigeria, where militants claiming to be fighting for a greater share of the oil wealth are also accused of racketeering and selling oil on the black market, the lines between political grievance and criminality in the gulf are blurred.
Assaults on banks in Benin, Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea point to organized crime.
“They might call themselves freedom fighters but it is hogwash. It’s about money,” one diplomat said.
“They are learning tricks, getting arms from and, in some cases, mingling with the people in the Delta,” he said.
Militants claiming to be fighting against the return of the oil-rich Bakassi Peninsula to Cameroon from Nigeria have sprung up, kidnapping oil workers. Analysts also question why the gunmen who attacked Malabo in Equatorial Guinea in February hit the presidential palace rather than soft targets like banks.
“Its quite a tricky mix of operations. I don’t think that it is very conclusive yet,” said Hannah Koep, a West Africa analyst at Control Risks. “[But] this perception of a spreading threat is definitely there.”
Having watched violence in Nigeria from the sidelines, governments in the region are now acutely aware of the threat.
“We always thought we were very far from the Delta,” said Gabriel Obiang Lima, Equatorial Guinea’s vice energy minister.
In light of the Malabo attack, Gabon bolstered its border. Diplomats say Cameroon has replaced regular army soldiers in Bakassi with special forces answering directly to the president.