ACCRA, Ghana, July 15 (UPI) -- U.S. President Barack Obama's landmark visit to the West African state of Ghana on June 10-11, his first trip as president to the continent of his ancestors, held a special resonance for Big Oil and American businessmen.
Ghana, one of the most democratic countries in a continent where despots and tyrants still proliferate, is on the cusp of oil wealth -- and the United States wants it.
It faces a major challenge from energy-hungry China, which seems to be everywhere in Africa snapping up access to minerals and raw materials for its burgeoning economy.
Obama's trip to the former British colony may have been promoted as his personal effort to lift Africa out of the Dark Ages of perpetual war, famine, poverty and corruption. But oilmen take a more cynical view.
The trip was "a subtle White House oil strategy to secure another source of energy on the continent of Africa," said Patrick Morris, CEO of Gold Star Resources Corp. of Vancouver, which is seeking oil and gas fields in Ghana, Liberia and Ivory Coast.
Obama's visit "is a smart game plan to strengthen U.S. ties with its West African allies and create new alliances that could ultimately secure U.S. energy interests on the African continent," Morris declared.
West Africa is the new frontier for oil and gas. The Gulf of Guinea is the centerpiece, but big fields can still be found ashore. Ghana discovered oil in 2007 and is about to join the energy frenzy sweeping the region.
Offshore in the Atlantic's deep waters, Texas-based Kosmos Energy already controls the Jubilee field. That's one of the biggest oil strikes in the region in the past decade and is estimated to hold 1.2 billion barrels.
Kosmos is taking bids from the majors, Chevron Corp., ExxonMobil and Royal Dutch/Shell as well as the ever-present Chinese in the shape of the state-run China National Offshore Oil Corp. The deadline for the bids is Friday, six days after Obama's visit.
By some estimates, the United States now gets around 24 percent of its oil imports from West Africa.
That's expected to rise as more fields come on stream, loading their crude on tankers to be shipped across the Atlantic directly to the U.S. east coast without the hassle and hazard of shipping from the turbulent Middle East.
But the southern oil fields of Nigeria, one of West Africa's main producers, are increasingly gripped by violence, and there are fears that will destabilize the entire Gulf region.
To counter that threat, the Bush administration established the Africa Command, known as Africom, in 2008. Its mission was to "help Africans help themselves" with humanitarian programs for building schools, hospitals, water systems and the like.
But there are widening fears in Africa that the primary mission of the new command -- headquartered in Stuttgart, Germany, because no African government would host it -- is to secure U.S. access to the region's energy resources.
"While Obama administration officials … insist that U.S. foreign policy toward Africa isn't being militarized, the evidence seems to suggest otherwise," said Gerald LeMelle, executive director of the non-governmental organization African Action.
Africom is currently aiding the Ugandan government combat rebels of the Lord's Resistance Army led by Joseph Kony, one of the most brutal warlords in Africa whose ragtag army largely comprises abducted child soldiers.
Africom was ordered to provide logistical support, but the Ugandan forces bungled the operation and Kony killed hundreds of civilians. Africom had to take some of the heat.
A bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers is now calling for the Obama administration to eliminate Kony -- a far cry from Africom's stated mission.
U.S. forces are training counterinsurgency forces in Mali, Niger, Senegal, Chad and other countries in northwestern Africa to counter al-Qaida infiltration.
At the same time, the administration is shipping ammunition -- as well as mounting airstrikes and Special Forces raids -- to help the collapsing and corrupt transitional government in strife-torn Somalia to counter Islamist rebels the Americans say are linked to al-Qaida.
Washington's allies in the transitional government in Mogadishu have promised to pass oil laws that would allow foreign oil companies -- read U.S. oil companies -- to return to Somalia. Before the country collapsed into chaos in 1991, several companies had reported possible oil reserves there.
Is it possible that Africom may find a home in Accra?