Africa Handshake, Part Five: Sao Who?

With two expensive land wars draining the treasury, the Pentagon wants to prevent future conflicts without spending a lot of money. Two years ago the Navy launched its first, roughly annual Africa Partnership Station, sending ships on solo cruises up the West African coast to deliver training and humanitarian aid. The idea: to win new friends and re-assure old ones, and boost their ability to handle security crises on their own. Our own David Axe joins the landing dock USS Nashville for APS 3.0 in Gabon.


I won’t lie to you. I had never even heard of Sao Tome and Principe until two days before visiting. It’s a tiny island nation a couple hundred miles off the Gabonese coast, heavily reliant on sea trade and fishing. One problem: like many West African nations, Sao Tome has only a tiny, under-equipped coast guard. The U.S. Navy has given the STCG a couple Automated Identification System consoles for monitoring ships’ radio beacons, and some radars to spot smugglers and illegal fishermen who turn off their AISs. But one of Sao Tome’s AISs wouldn’t boot up, and the Boston Whaler boat they use to inspect suspect vessel had problems with its engine and fuel tank.

Enter USS Nashville and Africa Partnership Station. The ship anchored off Sao Tome on April 18 and began shuttling people ashore to fix the AIS and the Boston Whaler. APS chief Commodore Cindy Thebaud and the U.S. ambassador to Gabon (who also handles Sao Tome) followed, for meetings with the country’s senior leadership.

The U.S. Navy’s relationship with Sao Tome is “not ideal,” in the words of one officer. Even semiannual visits by U.S. ships aren’t frequent enough to keep high-tech systems and finicky boats working. Better to teach the STCG to fix its own systems. But Nashville’s visit was for just one day — not long enough for thorough training. Ensign Jason Stephens, whose team fixed the AIS, radars and boats, did his best to show Sao Tomean officers the steps he was taking. But that was a half-measure, when full measures are called for.

The situation in Sao Tome speaks to the vast demand for maritime partnerships in West Africa. Nashville and her teams are just scratching the surface of the region’s needs. The next APS, traveling on the catamaran Swift, is being planned for this summer. Hopefully she’ll call at Sao Tome for longer than one day.

(Photo: David Axe)