When Uncle Sam comes calling in Africa…


In May 2001, the Bush administration released its report for national energy policy. The administration’s plan called for a major diversification of American oil supplies away from the politically volatile Persian Gulf to “friendlier” Sub-Saharan Africa – in particular the Gulf of Guinea expanse. The arc from the Ivory Coast in the northwest to the western coast of South Africa in the south contains proven deposits, mostly offshore, amounting to 20-30 billion barrels.  West Africa already supplies about 12% of US crude oil imports, and America’s National Intelligence Council predicts that this share will rise to 25% by 2015.

Interest in African oil has been further heightened by the US-led war against Iraq; recent strikes by Venezuelan oil workers; and by potential political instability in Saudi Arabia – all of which underscore America’s vulnerability as its voracious appetite for oil grows.  Oil development in West Africa offers many attractions, experts say. Reserves are bountiful, the quality is high and shipping routes to America are generally shorter than from other regions.

The Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies (IASPS), a conservative think-thank based in Washington and Jerusalem, has been at the forefront of research on the strategic importance of West African oil to America.  In January last year, the IASPS hosted a symposium in Houston, Texas, which was attended by government and oil industry representatives. An influential working group called the African Oil Policy Initiative Group (AOPIG) co-chaired by IASPS researchers Barry Schutz and Paul Michael Wihbey, which has been largely responsible for driving American governmental policy concerning west African oil, emerged from the symposium. According to the AOPIG white paper that was released following the symposium: “African oil is not an end, but a means to both greater US energy security and more rapid African economic development”.

Whose development?

While the AOPIG’s mission may sound noble, its words ring hollow following America’s shameful performance at the World Summit for Sustainable Development in Johannesburg last year, where Colin Powell spent a mere 24 hours! The sincerity of the American government’s commitment to development on the continent must be questioned in the light of this snub.

Oil projects, too, can hardly be viewed as an example of positive development in Africa. Nigeria, the largest producer and exporter of oil in Africa, exports millions of dollars in oil per year: over $300 billion worth has been pumped from the Niger Delta in the last four decades, yet the population lives in terrible poverty. According to the United Nations, seventy percent of Nigeria’s population lives on less than $1 dollar a day, and the poorest fifth of the population received only four percent of the nation’s wealth.  The percentage of people living in poverty has more than doubled since 1980, despite the government collecting an estimated $14 billion a year in oil revenue, according to Catholic Relief Services.

The impoverished oil-rich countries of the Middle East and West Africa are a stark reminder that oil money does not end up where it is needed most – something that proponents of African development must bear in mind when they decided to hop in bed with American oil executives.  It is no coincidence that in country after country, oil windfalls have been embezzled or mismanaged, public spending has spiralled to unsustainable levels, industries have died off, civil strife has grown and poverty has worsened.  “We don’t have a single example of oil leading to long-term positive outcomes in developing countries,” says Stanford University political scientist Terry Lynn Karl.  Africa has not proved to be the exception.

Africa’s largest development project, a 1040km, $4,3-billion oil pipeline between Chad and Cameroon, was criticised for damaging the interests of the poor.

The Chad-Cameroon project, which will provide income of almost $4,6-billion for the United States oil giant Exxon, has been criticised by human rights and environmental groups. South Africa’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu, said: “The Chad-Cameroon project is not the help we asked for or needed. In the absence of the rule of law and respect for human rights and the environment, financing of large-scale oil development is destroying the environment and us.”

Some experts say the best way to improve conditions is to force big oil companies to report publicly how much money they pay host governments in the countries where they operate. Without that information, it is nearly impossible for citizens to hold their leaders accountable for oil payments that wind up in offshore accounts. In the light of West Africa’s strategic importance for Africa and for South Africa, as a tactical ally of President Mbeki, especially in the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (Nepad) on which much of the continent’s prosperity depends, such transparency becomes vital.

The possibility of increased accountability by oil companies will remain an unattainable goal, unfortunately. “The soft spot in the Bush administration’s African oil policy is its reluctance to pressure US-based oil companies to report the payments they make,” says American University economist George Ayittey, a specialist in African development. “But the world’s political dynamics have changed so drastically that you can’t just close your eyes to the deals going on between oil companies and corrupt African regimes,” he added. Unfortunately, the American regime has done just that, and oil companies have managed to undermine all forms of empowerment and development in the countries in which they operate.

The oil companies: agents of development or destruction?

In the 1990s, the Nigerian government executed Ken Saro-Wiwa, a leader of the Ogoni people, along with seven others. Saro-Wiwa’s brother revealed that Shell Oil, which controls 50 percent of oil operations in the Niger Delta, offered to halt the executions if Ken Saro-Wiwa agreed to call off the Ogoni people’s demonstrations against Shell. The accounts emanating from the region are legions of oil companies, principally Shell and Chevron, hiring mercenaries or soldiers to kill political opponents or local activists.

Many of the protest actions in the Niger Delta have been led by women, which have had some success in wringing concessions from the oil companies. In July 2002, after a series of occupations by Ijaw women, Chevron promised to build schools and hire local people. A similar occupation in early August was held to pressure Chevron to stop gas flaring (which has created massive air pollution in the region). The protesters were attacked by police and soldiers called in by Chevron, and some were killed.

George W. Bush’s background as an oil executive, may, in part, explain his dismissive attitude about the harmful effect that oil projects have on indigenous communities, the environment, and development. Despite Bush’s vociferous criticism of repressive regimes in the Middle East, his search for more secure sources of oil is leading him to the doorsteps of some of the world’s most troubled and repressive regimes – a fact which the American government does not find problematic.

Back to the futureé

Oil analysts and activists fear the Bush administration may be repeating mistakes of the past, when the US tolerated questionable practices by oil-producing governments to advance its Cold War and energy security interests.

Potential trouble spots include Equatorial Guinea, the continent’s third largest producer behind Nigeria and Angola. Following the discovery of oil reserves off the tiny country’s coast in 1994, the U.S. re-opened its embassy there. The Bush administration has been developing close relations with that country’s dictator, Brigadier Genera Teodoro Obiang – a man that the CIA fact book describes as a “ruthless leader”.

Another hot spot is Angola, where oil financed three decades of civil war and where billions of petro-dollars are deposited in offshore accounts. Other African oil producers with documented records of government corruption; electoral fraud, financial mismanagement or human rights abuses include Chad, Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The biggest player in West African oil is Nigeria, which has been governed by military dictatorships for most of its post-independence existence. In the 1990s, the brutal dictator, Sani Abacha, presided over a regime of extreme brutality and corruption. Needless to say, the advocates of oil investment had little problem with military rule in Nigeria, as long as the oil kept flowing.

The current government of President Olusegun Obasanjo (whose recent re-election was fraught with accusations of electoral rigging) has shown great willingness to follow Washington’s direction in regional affairs. Although Obasanjo is a civilian ruler, it must be remembered that he ruled the country as a military dictator in the 1970s, with corruption and violence characterizing his current regime. All of this seems almost comical when one notes that Africa Subcommittee Chairman Edward Royce said that “It is very difficult to imagine a Saddam Hussein in Africa,” during the Houston symposium last year.

“Protecting” US interests

Apart from supporting brutal West African regimes, America’s military involvement is also set to increase – ostensibly to “permit the U.S. Navy and armed forces to more easily project power to defend American interests and allies in West Africa”. After fuelling proxy wars throughout the region and propping up murderous dictatorships for over 25 years, does Africa really need more American military interference?

 It seems, though, that Africans have little choice in the matter. According to reports, the Bush administration has already given the go-ahead to Military Professional Resources, Inc.- a private firm led by former U.S. military top-dogs, to train the Guinean security force that will be in charge of guarding the off-shore oil installations.

In October 2002, a senior US general, Carlton Fulford, visited Sao Tomé and Principe, the islands halfway between Nigeria and Angola, to discuss the possibility of establishing a military base there. Will the American military start interfering in the internal politics and foreign policy of countries that possess its oil supplies. Given that Washington has already said it is “uneasy” about the close relationship that many West African leaders share with Libya’s Muamar Gadaffi, this is very probable.

While the American government has portrayed the oil trade in west Africa as a mutually beneficial undertaking, experience in the Middle East and west Africa shows that prosperity usually ends up in the hands of oil companies; and corrupt regimes – not the people from whose land the oil is extracted from. After centuries of colonial neglect and exploitation, the people of Africa cannot afford its land to be raped and pillaged by a new colonial power. South African president Thabo Mbeki has called for an “African Renaissance”, but the type of development that the oil trade brings will result in regression – not a renaissance.

Ms. Suraya Dadoo is a researcher with the Media Review Network, which is an advocacy group based in Pretoria, South Africa.