on 24 September 2007
Among the many examinations into the global oil business Africa has emerged as a new hot topic. While African petroleum resources have been known and extracted for many decades, they have gained in prominence in the last few years. This is particularly due to the uncertainties of dependable oil supplies from the Middle East. Also, China's recent discovery of Africa for investment purposes has fuelled new exploration ventures and increased the global competition for the black gold.
In this highly readable report journalist and historian John Ghazvinian pursues two paths of investigation: who are the major players in Africa's new prized commodity and what does the resulting economic boom mean for the populations in the countries concerned? In search of answers, or at least to gain better understanding of the realities on the ground, the author travelled in the major African oil producing countries. Much of his evidence is collected through field observation and interviews with a wide range of people - those who visibly have benefited from the oil boom in their country and those who definitively have not. The first group represents the tiny political elite of the country, the second being the vast majority whose life is either unaffected or, most likely, made worse. Ghazvinian's account is a mix of adventure travelogue and fact-filled examination of the geopolitics of oil, its wider socio-economic context with the ensuing fallout in the countries concerned. His narrative is lively and entertaining, his analysis sharp and his conclusions devastating.
With the global oil price sky rocketing in recent years while, at the same time, advanced technologies in deep sea drilling have made off-shore oil extraction more cost-beneficial, the scramble for the oil deposits off the West African coast - in the Gulf of Guinea - has reached high stakes proportions. Of great advantage for the investors is that they can auction exploration blocks from the government and its business partners without having to involve themselves in the internal political challenges of the host country nor deal with the economic and environmental fallout of their operations.
He starts the investigation in Nigeria, one of the largest global oil producers, whose political problems are regularly making the international news media. His portrait of the ongoing conflict in the oil producing Delta region between the local population, competing militant groups, local politicians and the central government, make chilling reading. Greed, corruption, extortion and political manipulation are all part of daily business. In addition, the multinational corporations have their own agenda. From Nigeria he travels to the other main oil producing countries, such as Angola, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon, ending his voyage in Chad and Sudan. Each country faces different, while comparable, challenges and problems.
Yet, after describing the details of the respective oil exploration, the dealings between oil corporations and government officials, he sums up the governments' complete failures in translating the huge oil revenues into necessary investments in the basic living conditions of the local people. He defines this as the "curse of oil". Reflecting on current and underlying causes, such as widespread corruption and greed of the respective ruling classes as well as lacking negotiation skills with multinationals, he places part of the responsibility at the door of the international aid system, in particular the World Bank and the IMF, and Western governments. He contends that their behaviour toward the oil producing African countries perpetuates conditions that recall the former colonial era. Western efforts to promote more responsible and effective uses of oil-based revenues, with, among others a focus on anti-poverty measures, require for countries to have or to build the necessary infrastructure and competencies. Chad is given as an example where such attempts failed.
Ghazvinian's book raises important issues of concern not only to Africans but to all of us who benefit from the African oil resources. He intends it as a "wake-up" call and he achieves his objective commendably. The lack of footnotes and references, while facilitating the reading, make verification of his facts and figures difficult. His in-depth focus on the oil business and the oil producing countries leave out, by necessity, many other aspects of African development. Unfortunately, he includes a number of generalized throw-away lines on the dismal affairs in Africa as a whole. A statement like the following is neither helpful nor accurate: "Stories about Gabon in the international press are virtually nonexistent and, sadly, in a continent of plagues and famines, wars and genocide, this splendid anonymity, this tacit acknowledgement that nothing much ever happens here, is probably as close as Africa gets to a real success story." A more subtle and cautious approach here would have increased the author's credibility. [Friederike Knabe]