The United States, keen to develop new sources of oil supply outside the Middle East, has offered to help Nigeria protect the flow of oil in the Gulf of Guinea and combat terrorist attacks on the oil industry, officials said.
The Gulf of Guinea, stretching from Liberia in the west to Angola in the south, currently provides about 15 percent of U.S. oil supplies. That share is expected to grow to 25 percent by 2015, according to a recent report commissioned for the U.S. Congress.
The deputy commander of the U.S. European Command, General Charles Wald, met Nigeria's Defence Minister Roland Oritsejafor and military chiefs in the capital Abuja on Monday. They discussed how the United States could help Nigeria, West Africa's regional superpower and largest oil producer, to improve security for the oil industry throughout the region.
“We talked with Nigerian military leaders about having a way that we could cooperate together in monitoring the waters of the Gulf of Guinea,” Wald told reporters afterwards although he gave no further details.
The British publication Jane's Defence Weekly reported earlier this year that Washington wanted to relaunch the African Coastal Security Programme to improve the capability of the navies and coastguard services of African governments and combat piracy.
It quoted US military officials as saying that in return, America would like to have access to rudimentary bases for military training and operations in the event of crisis.
Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country with 126 million people and is also the continent’s biggest oil exporter, ranking seventh in global terms. Nearly two-thirds of Nigeria's entire oil production of about 2.5 million barrels per day goes to the United States.
However, organised gangs steal about 10 percent of Nigeria's output and export it illegally. Frequent clashes involving ethnic militias and the security forces in the oil producing Niger Delta region have disrupted production. Foreign oil companies have often found themselves directly targeted.
Their employees have often been taken hostage and last April seven people, including two U.S. oil workers, were killed during an attack by militants on a boat belonging to oil firm ChevronTexaco.
Following his talks with General Wald, the Nigerian defence minister indicated the readiness of President Olusegun Obasanjo’s government to cooperate with Washington to improve security in the Gulf of Guinea, which contains about 10 percent of the world's known oil reserves.
“Where you have wealth, if you don't protect it, you are vulnerable to terrorism and illegal arms dealers and so you are not safe,” Oritsejafor said.
“So all countries who believe in global peace and stability must at one point come together and say no to evil. And that is the point we are gradually getting to,” he added.
Last month, news reports from Nigeria and the United States quoted diplomats and US government officials as saying that Washington planned to deploy a naval force led by an aircraft carrier in the Gulf of Guinea during the coming months to conduct exercises and raise the US military profile in the region.
Besides Nigeria, the other major oil-producing countries in the Gulf of Guinea are Angola, Equatorial Guinea, Congo-Brazzaville and Gabon. Landlocked Chad began exporting oil last year to an export terminal on the coast of Cameroon.
The small island state of Sao Tome and Principe is about to develop potentially huge offshore oilfields in conjunction with Nigeria and is attracting increasing interest from Washington.
Earlier this year, the United States agreed to finance feasibility studies for extending the runway of Sao Tome's international airport and building a deep water port on the island.