Bush's search for black gold [West Africa]

by Chris Fagan

International Socialist Review, November / December 2002


After the end of the Cold War in 1989, the successive U.S. administrations of Bush I and Clinton adopted a policy of substantially ignoring sub-Saharan Africa. After fueling proxy wars throughout the region and propping up murderous dictatorships for over 25 years, Washington decided on a policy of "malign neglect."

During the 1990s, most of sub-Saharan Africa saw a dramatic decline in living standards, the horrific AIDS pandemic, and the constant eruption of wars. The U.S. government's attitude was to shrug its shoulders. This reached its nadir in 1994 when a murderous regime in Rwanda orchestrated the killing of up to I million Rwandans in six weeks. According to Human Rights Watch, the Clinton administration's response was to tell officials not to refer to it as "genocide," so that they would not be obligated to act under the 1948 UN Genocide Convention. In 1995, a Pentagon report concluded that the U.S. had "very little traditional strategic interests in Africa."

In the last year, however, U.S. policy towards the region has undergone a sea change. The Bush II administration has adopted a much more engaged policy towards Africa in general, and certain countries in particular. There is a very simple explanation for this change: oil. According to journalist Ken Silverstein, West Africa has become a growing source of U.S. oil imports-and U.S. oil company profits. Since September 11 and the planned war on Iraq, it has been increasingly seen as a strategic prize. As Silverstein writes in the April 22 Nation:

The Bush administration's national energy policy, released last May, predicted that West Africa would become "one of the fastest growing sources of oil and gas for the American market." The year before, Paul Michael Wihbey of Washington's Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies described West Africa as "an area of vital U.S. interest" in testimony before Congress. He proposed the creation of a new South Atlantic Military Command that would "permit the U.S. Navy and armed forces to more easily project power to defend American interests and allies in West Africa." The September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon further heightened American attention to Africa, with national security planners urging that the United States seek to diversify supplies of oil away from the Middle East.

The region surrounding the Gulf of Guinea on Africa's Atlantic coast is the source of billions of barrels worth of oil. 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. While this is much less than Saudi Arabia's 250 billion barrels, there are numerous advantages to African oil. The oil is generally of high quality, and has the great advantage (to Washington) of not being in the Middle East. Additionally, since most deposits are offshore, it will be much easier to protect the facilities from the populations of the respective countries who may come to feel that living in abject poverty while billions of dollars in oil is being pumped out of their front yards is somewhat unfair.

U.S. corporations, policy makers, and politicians are approaching the region as a vast oil reservoir and the people who live there as a nuisance and potential threat. As the increasingly influential African Oil Policy Initiative Group (AOPIG) argued in a white paper published in January 2002, "much of Africa's oil is offshore, thereby insulated from domestic political or social turmoil." In addition, "U.S. friends and allies in the region have little or no bluewater naval capabilities."

Thus, the door is open for U.S. military assistance in securing offshore facilities. Indeed, rumors are rampant that Washington is set to establish a permanent naval base in Sao Tome, a small collection of islands in the Gulf. In July, General Carlton Fulford, the deputy commander of the U.S. European Command, visited Sao Tome after a visit to Nigeria where he pledged U.S. assistance for training ECOMOG (the 11-year-old West African peacekeeping force composed of soldiers from several states but dominated by Nigeria, established first to intervene in Liberia's civil war). Clearly, Washington is angling for a much greater role in West African affairs.

The U.S. gets roughly 16 percent of its oil from West Africa, mostly from Nigeria (900,000 barrels per day, bpd) which is its fifth largest supplier. The entire region produces 4 million bpd, more than Iran, Venezuela, or Mexico. And total output is expected to rise dramatically over the next several years. By 2020, Nigeria's oil output is expected to -. double, and Angola's to more than triple. Even more of it is expected to flow to the U.S. The National Intelligence Council, a U.S. government think tank, predicts ~ that Africa's share of U.S. oil imports will rise to 25 percent by 2015. And according to the Nigerian daily This Day, "statistics from the U.S. Department of Energy showed African oil exports to the U.S. will rise to 50 percent of the total by 2015." Consequently, various diplomats, military figures, and U.S.-based oil companies have been making high-profile visits to the region and talking up a new strategic partnership.

Imperial gall

After Secretary of State Colin Powell's shameful performance at the Sustainable Development Summit in September in South Africa-where he spent his one day '! visit buttonholing governments to support the war on Iraq-he stopped off in Angola and Gabon on his way home. In Angola, he broke ground on the new U.S embassy building, and talked of Washington's interest in working with the Angolan government. Rarely has their been a more blatant example of imperial gall than Powell professing U.S. friendship to Angola. For 25 years, successive U.S. administrations bankrolled the rebel movement of UNITA that carried out a savage civil war against the Angolan government. They ruined the country, killing hundreds of thousands in the name of U.S. Cold War policy, and left the country devastated. But now, Washington says it is interested in "partnership" with the Angolan government. Of course, it is really interested in Angola's oil reserves, and the bankrupt and corrupt Angolan government seems happy to oblige.

The big player in West African oil is Nigeria. It is the largest oil exporter in the region, and with 123 million people, it is the most populous country on the continent. The proponents of U.S. engagement never tire of saying that oil-based investment will raise living standards and help democratization. The example of Nigeria, which has been a major oil producer for over 30 years, indicates otherwise.

Of course, the flacks for U.S. imperialism always say that their domination will bring about all sorts of good things, but in the case of West Africa, their words have a particularly hollow ring. Nigeria 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 UN, in 1997 70.2 percent of Nigeria's population lived on less than $1 dollar a day, and the poorest fifth of the population received only 4.4 percent of the nation's wealth. The Delta region, home to Nigeria's oil industry, is poor and polluted. The antiquated oil pipeline system is subject to regular spills and gas fires. The people are subject to routine savage repression by police and soldiers. In the 1990s, the 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 are legion of oil companies, principally Shell and Chevron, hiring mercenaries or soldiers to kill political opponents or local activists.

Nigeria has been governed by military dictatorships for most of its post-independence existence. In the 1990s, a particularly brutal dictator, Sani Abacha, presided over a regime of extreme brutality and corruption. Needless to say, the proponents of oil investment had little problem with military rule in Nigeria, as long as the oil kept flowing. There is little reason to think the plans now being hatched in Washington would be any different.

Following Washington's direction

The current government of President Olusegun Obasanjo has shown great willingness to follow Washington's direction in regional affairs. While Obasanjo is a civilian ruler it would be difficult to confuse him with a democrat. He ruled the country as a military dictator in the 1970s, and the same corruption and violence that ordinary Nigerians have suffered under military and civilian rulers alike have characterized his current regime. Oil does not necessarily bring about a better life for the people who live near it. If anything the opposite is true, from the corrupt monarchies of the Persian Gulf to the rapacious dictators in Nigeria. Angola's ruler, Jose Eduardo dos Santos, for example, has used Angola's oil revenue to build up his military and secret police apparatus.

The U.S. likes it that way. Another poor West African state, the tiny Equatorial Guinea (where average life expectancy is 54), now produces 500,000 bpd, making it the continent's third largest per capita producer behind Nigeria and Angola. Several U.S. companies discovered oil reserves off the country's coast in 1994 -weeks after the U.S. shut down its embassy there. Now, two-thirds of Guineas oil is imported to the U.S. The Bush administration, which has reopened the embassy, has been developing close relations with that country's dictator, Brigadier Genera Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, who came to power in a 1979 coup. Bush was heavily pressured by his oil company pals to improve relations with Obiang. "There is plenty of instability in the world, and the more diverse supplies of oil we have, the better off things are," said Jim Musselman, head of Triton Energy, one of the U.S. oil companies that is pumping Equatorial Guinea's oil. "Knock on wood, this country is stable and the president is sincerely trying to improve things. It's not going to turn into suburban Washington, but it could be a model for this part of the world." Such fulsome praise for a man that even the CIA fact book describes as a "ruthless leader." According to Amnesty International, the government recently tried and sentenced 70 people to prison terms ranging from 6 to 20 years on charges of "undermining the security of the state." All were convicted on statements extracted under torture during two months of incommunicado detention.

This is indeed the idea model for success: large oil reserves, pumped by American companies guaranteed smooth profits by the presence of a strong military dictatorship not averse to a little repression now and then. Indeed, according to Silverstein, the Bush administration has given the go-ahead to Military Professional Resources, Inc. (MPRI)-a private firm led by former U.S. military brass-to train the Guinean security force that will be in charge of guarding the off-shore oil installations.

In the wake of 9-11, it is easy to see why Washington would look favorably on getting its oil from a region that is perceived to be less hostile to U.S. interests. Of course, the reality is not quite so simple. Middle Eastern anti-Americanism is based on the real grievances of people ruthlessly exploited to get at the oil. An increase in U.S. involvement in West Africa will likely have exactly the same effect-they'll get support from brutal dictators, but not from the people whom they rule. This is not to mention, of course, the grievance of the long and brutal history of the U.S. traffic in African slaves which plied its trade along the shores of West Africa.

Nigeria also shows the other face of West African oil-the power of ordinary people to fight back. A militant democracy movement spearheaded by the oil workers' unions brought down Abacha. More recently, the oil-rich Niger Delta region has seen mass protests against the oil companies.

Many of these actions have been occupations led by women, which have had some success in wringing concessions from the oil companies. In July, 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. But mass protests of both oil workers and their families continue.

Bush's newfound interest in West Africa represents a dramatic change in U.S. policy, which will have far-reaching effects throughout the region. U.S. imperialism will increase tensions and fuel conflicts, much as it has in the Middle East. The growth of oil investment could provoke militant opposition, not just against American oil companies and the American government, but against the brutal regimes that are cutting deals with them.


Chris Fagan is a member of the International Socialist Organization in Chicago.

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