In the dying days of Charles Taylor’s murderous regime in Liberia, the American navy moored off his capital, Monrovia. Some 200-plus marines came ashore to secure the American embassy against trigger-happy rebels and crowds of panicking civilians alike, as the city burned. Five years on, American forces are back, in the shape of an amphibious landing ship 190 metres (600 feet) long and a smaller high-speed catamaran. But this time the troops came ashore to mend roads, renovate schools and health clinics, bring medical supplies and provide free health care. They also took on board 40 soldiers from the new Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) for training in martial arts and leadership.
Helpful though these efforts are in a dirt-poor country, they were also a public-relations exercise to persuade suspicious African governments to welcome America’s planned Africa Command (AFRICOM), with an increased military presence on the continent, before it becomes fully operational in October. Dubbed the Africa Partnership Station, two American navy ships, the USS Fort McHenry and the twin-hulled USS Swift, are near the end of a six-month cruise that has taken in seven countries in the Gulf of Guinea (Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Ghana, Liberia, São Tomé and Príncipe, and Senegal) with the aim of improving maritime security as well as winning hearts and minds in this oil-rich region.
This so-called partnership station, enthuses its commander, Commodore John Nowell, is “a case study in the strengths that AFRICOM brings to bear.” It is “multinational, multi-agency, [in] partnerships and relationships.” Another senior navy man says that the new policy requires “a mind shift from ‘We’re going to take the beach’ to ‘We’re going to deliver supplies to the beach’.” The commodore says that more than 1,200 African troops have now been trained on board the Fort McHenry since November, while an array of naval officers from Britain, Cameroon, France, Germany, Ghana and Portugal have taken commanding roles on the ship. “A very NATO model,” says one of them.
In any event, America’s attitude has changed sharply since a Pentagon report in 1995 said that Africa was of “very little traditional strategic interest”. The administration has so far spent $127m on AFRICOM and has asked for another $389m for 2009. America’s key interests in Africa remain terrorism and oil. Terrorists linked to al-Qaeda attacked the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, killing more than 200 people. America gets more than 15% of its oil from Africa, and the figure is rising. It also worries about China’s growing influence there.
“We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t in [American] interests,” acknowledges Commodore Nowell. Despite the talk of soft power and the much-vaunted humanitarian aspect of the naval presence in the Gulf of Guinea, the real emphasis is still on security. It is plainly in America’s interest to help African navies and armies to stop thefts of crude oil, illegal fishing and immigration, drug trafficking and piracy. All these hurt local economies, undermine political stability and threaten to turn poor countries into failed states, such as Somalia, that may breed terrorism.