Uncle Sam Comes Calling in Africa
to Alternative Reader Index
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
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
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?
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 future...
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
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
*Suraya Dadoo is a researcher with Media Review Network
an advocacy group based in Pretoria.
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