Nairobi, Kenya (CNSNews.com) - The United States government is playing down persistent reports that it has plans to establish a military naval base on tiny islands in the oil-rich Gulf of Guinea off West Africa.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Walther Kansteiner, said in Washington Tuesday that the U.S. had no intention of setting up a military base in the Sao Tome and Principe islands, "nor anywhere in central and West Africa."
Kansteiner visited the region last week, and met President Fradique de Menezes and Prime Minister Maria das Neves.
Kansteiner told reporters at the time the talks did not dwell on the issue of building a military base in the former Portuguese colony. He acknowledged that the U.S. was looking at providing Sao Tome and Principe with patrol boats to improve its maritime and customs controls, and would be expanding cooperation in other areas.
Media reports have for months pointed to the possibility of the U.S. establishing a military base there.
They seemed to have been on the mark when on Aug. 22, de Menezes announced that he had reached an agreement with the U.S. to set up a naval base there.
That announcement came shortly after U.S., British and French military officers met with representatives from the 15-member Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) during a two-day fact-finding mission to West Africa.
The Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies, an Israel-based think tank, has argued in favor of the creation of a U.S. Gulf of Guinea Command, with Sao Tome and
Principe serving as the base.
The military interest in West Africa has been seen as part of a move to encourage U.S. disengagement from politically volatile Middle East oil interests, and to loosen ties with some Arab states.
African analysts say U.S. and European military interest in the region is driven by recent offshore oil discoveries there, in addition to inland oil deposits large enough to meet 15 percent of annual U.S. oil import needs.
The U.S. National Intelligence Council projects that U.S. supplies from the Gulf of Guinea will surge to 25 percent by 2015.
West Africa and Latin America are expected to provide the fastest-growing sources of oil and gas for the U.S. market, according to a 2001 report on U.S. national energy policy.
The report, drawn up by a taskforce chaired by Vice President Cheney, identified African oil as being of high quality and low in sulfur, making it suitable for stringent refined product requirements.
While the Persian Gulf countries provide the U.S. with 25 percent of its oil needs, Africa provides 15 percent. Major African sources include Nigeria, Angola, Gabon, Cameroon, and Equatorial Guinea.
Although U.S.-West Africa oil trade would improve the socio-economic development of the region, the establishment of a military base would also have political implications, and this has raised some alarm bells.
"U.S. military involvement of this nature in West Africa means that democracy may be overlooked in some countries, as a bait to support the establishment of the naval base," argued Dr. Gerrison Ikiara of the University of Nairobi's Institute of Diplomacy and International Affairs.
Ikiara said he believed it was important that Africa remained "non-aligned and a nuclear free-zone."
According to the CIA Factbook, the U.S. does not have an embassy in Sao Tome and Principe but the ambassador to Gabon - around 240 kilometers away - is accredited to Sao Tome and Principe on a non-resident basis and makes periodic visits to the islands.
The islands cover an area of 1,001 square kilometers and have a population of 170,000. Its main exports are commodities, including cocoa, copra, coffee and palm oil.
According to the U.N. it is one of the world's poorest nations.
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