March 5, 2013 | CNN

Why We Should Be Watching the Gulf of Guinea

March 5, 2013 | CNN

Why We Should Be Watching the Gulf of Guinea

As Washington has assessed the implications of Iranian threats to close the Strait of Hormuz, the world’s most critical energy chokepoint, a crisis has loomed in another critical maritime energy corridor: the Gulf of Guinea.

The strategic importance of West Africa’s Gulf of Guinea – the stretch of coastline spanning from Gabon to Liberia that includes 15 states which have huge economic importance to the United States and the West – is hard to overstate. For one, the U.S. is expected to import a quarter of its oil from the Gulf of Guinea nations by 2015. Indeed, 70 percent of Africa’s oil production comes from the Gulf of Guinea. And with the recent discovery of offshore hydrocarbon deposits, these numbers are only going to rise.

And yet this crucial naval passage has witnessed an alarming spike in piracy and maritime crime in recent years that rivals the Horn of Africa. Last year, the International Maritime Bureau attributed only 75 attacks to pirates operating in Somalia and the Gulf of Aden, down from 237 in 2011. In the Gulf of Guinea, in contrast, piracy is on the rise, with 58 incidents recorded in 2012. The IMB has raised the alarm that the Gulf will overtake the Horn of Africa as the world’s top piracy hotspot.

The problem is that almost all the coastal states lack the capacity to handle the problem, and regional organizations have proven ineffective.

The International Crisis Group, for example, notes that the “weakness – and sometimes general inadequacy – of maritime polices in Gulf of Guinea states, and the lack of cooperation between them have allowed criminal networks to diversify their activities and gradually extend them away from the [Nigerian] coast and out on the high seas.”

The Gulf of Guinea is now a key route for arms and drug smuggling to Northern and Western Africa. There have been reports that terrorist groups like Boko Haram of Nigeria, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), al Shabab of Somalia, and elements of the Iranian regime have used this area for arms trafficking. It should therefore come as little surprise that one of the primary projects of the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) is troop training in the Gulf of Guinea.

Currently, AFRICOM has no regular troops, and so can do little to curb the problems that have been festering there. However, Nigeria may be the key to stability in this strategic corridor. The country’s recent turmoil – fomented by such groups as the jihadist Boko Haram and the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) – has gone largely ignored in America, despite the fact that Abuja provides more oil to this country than any Middle Eastern state except for Saudi Arabia. And while MEND’s campaign against the state appears to be largely neutralized, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan stated recently, “if Boko Haram is not contained, it would be a threat not only to Nigeria, but to West Africa, Central Africa and of course to North Africa.”

But militancy is not entirely to blame. The problem is a direct consequence of corruption, poverty, and exclusionary policies practiced by most of the governments along the Gulf of Guinea. The U.S military plans to permanently station 3,000 troops in Africa this year, but no amount of military assistance from AFRICOM will bring stability unless these critical problems are addressed.

To date, world powers have done little to combat the problems in the Gulf of Guinea. One reason could be the sheer expense. Efforts to combat piracy on the other side of the African continent in 2011 involved anywhere between 10 and 16 military vessels deployed on any given day in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean. Patrolling over four million square miles was an exceptionally difficult challenge, yet the Gulf of Guinea is even larger.

However, this kind of resource allocation may not even be necessary. Early intervention could still head off a full-blown crisis in this relatively obscure maritime passage. Failure to intervene, in contrast, could place this key region in international headlines – for all the wrong reasons.

Dawit Giorgis is a visiting fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.