Africa Handshake, Part One: This Is Libreville

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, like a confidence-inspiring strategic handshake. Our own David Axe joins the landing dock USS Nashville for APS 3.0 in Gabon.


I arrived in Libreville after yet another, epic, two-day series of flights. It feels like I’ve spent half of the last five years in seat 42J, sandwiched between a gassy fat guy and a crabby 6-year-old girl. I was in a bad mood. On a layover in Paris, the Navy had dropped me an email saying that the itinerary we’d forged for my visit to USS Nashville was null: instead of the 10-day embark we had planned, I was now being offered only three. So I had to change my air reservations. It wasn’t cheap.

To think, I used to enjoy travel.

At the Libreville airport, there was a man from the U.S. embassy waiting for me, although I hadn’t even told the embassy I was coming. The embassy had reserved a room for me in the luxury Le Meridien hotel, he said, although of course I’d be paying for it. Never mind that I had already made my own hotel reservations, at the rival Laico. I said thanks, but no thanks. Still, I accepted a ride from the man. We passed a Gabonese air force base crowded with C-130 and C-160 transports.

I met a man from a U.S. scientific foundation, here to pick up an ocean climate sensor being transported by Nashville. He told me his foundation had donated several such sensors to various West African countries during this phase of Africa Partnership Station. He or one of his staffers always meets the sensor at its destination to help facilitate the hand-over.

He said he loved Gabon, and it’s not hard to see why. Unlike many African countries, Gabon is actually clean. No piles of garbage in the street. No beaches littered with plastic and sharks’ body parts — I’m looking at you, Kenya. It’s safe. People are out jogging on the sidewalks. There are even tourists. Tourists! Eat your heart out, Chad.

Of course, that’s just Libreville — and the nicest part of the city, at that. It’s not for no reason that Nashville is calling at this country. Gabon might be better off than many African nations, thanks to its oil reserves and stable (albeit corrupt) government, but it’s still poor by our standards, and badly in need of a hand up.

At the Laico, I just managed to negotiate a lower rate by name-dropping the U.S. embassy, before falling fast asleep with the lights and one shoe still on. Nashville was due to arrive at Libreville in the morning, and I intended to be pier-side when she did.

The only benefit to the luxury hotels is the lavish free breakfast. I gorged on eggs, sausage, tomatoes, mushrooms, dates, figs, toast and coffee. An email arrived from Nashville: scratch the new plan, the old plan is back on, but pushed back one day. (Turns out Nashville doesn’t fit in Libreville’s small port — at least that’s the rumor.) One way or another, we’d meet up tomorrow. I would have to spend another $300 changing my air tickets, again, but that’s okay. I need the full 10 days to do APS right. I switched to a cheaper hotel for my second night in the city. The receptionist seemed to think my bad French was cute.

Walking along the city’s coastal highway, I glanced left and glimpsed Nashville‘s haze-gray shape, barely visible a mile or more out to sea. All that potential, in such a tiny package.

(Photo: me)