Oiling the wheels

Africa has been watching closely while Iraq descends into conflict.

Although events on the streets of Baghdad and Fallujah may seem a long way from the struggles for daily survival in N’Djaména or São Tomé, Africans are increasingly aware that what happens in the Middle East will have far-reaching implications for their own lives.

In the lead-up to the war in Iraq, the stage seemed to be set for Africa to finally have a meaningful say in world decision-making. Guinea, Cameroon and Angola, who occupied Africa’s rotating membership of the Security Council at the time, suddenly became key players. Almost without warning, decisions made in Conakry, Yaoundé and Luanda were essential to the grave matter of whether the rush to war would have United Nations legitimacy.

The pressure from the pro- and anti-war camps was intolerable. An unprecedented diplomatic offensive of high level visits, phone calls and emails offered a crude combination of inducements—were Africans to have offered such things, they would have been called bribes—and threats.

When Guinea took over the presidency of the Security Council on 1 March, it immediately found itself caught between the United States and France, its two largest donors. In return for a
pro-war vote, the United States and its allies promised a substantial increase in military aid along with $US4 million to help Guinea cope with a massive refugee population whose numbers had been swelled by the escalating conflict in neighbouring Côte d’Ivoire. Soon after, the French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin touched down in Conakry. Publicly, he revealed little of what his government was promising in order to counter US overtures, but he left no-one in any doubt that a vote for the United States would be viewed most unfavourably.

Cameroon, the country with the closest ties to France, claimed to be more preoccupied with its own forthcoming elections than with any war in Iraq. To catch its attention, the United States warned the government of President Paul Biya, a government regularly described as the world’s most corrupt, not to upset the world’s only superpower and controller of the purse strings at the International Monetary Fund.

More than any other country, Angola had reasons to be sceptical of the need for war, having only recently emerged from decades of its own devastating conflict. Alongside such sensitivities were powerful facts of life—the US is Angola’s biggest trade partner (heavily involved in Angola’s oil industry) and aid donor ($US128 million last year) and the demand for its vote was sweetened by the promise of more.

The whole episode descended into farce when British Foreign Office officials arrived in the three countries claiming, disingenuously, to carry gifts of Foreign Office key rings and little else. It was, they said, an insult to think that the UK would consider trying to buy votes through large inducements.
On a superficial reading of events, America, the UK and France had suddenly discovered that Africa was important. In reality, Africa was being offered little more than neocolonial threats and attempts to purchase African compliance for a pittance.

Africa was not uniquely targeted among Security Council members. However, the unseemly rush to bully and cajole African nations carried particular resonance. Whether it was key rings or millions of dollars on offer, the whole process was like an echo of the European arrival in Africa when government agents offered token payments for African land. The modern equivalent was no less crude in its shameful
re-enactment of trying to exploit Africa for imperial gain.

If either Guinea, Cameroon or Angola were in any doubt as to the serious consequences of a vote cast against the war, they needed only to consider recent history. When Yemen voted against the 1991 Gulf War, its diplomats were greeted in UN corridors minutes later by US officials pronouncing it the most expensive vote Yemen would ever cast. A package of aid worth $US70 million was promptly cancelled.

Amid all the high-powered delegations and discussions of geopolitical strategy, there were few formal opportunities for the African people to voice their opinion, although there was little doubt that most opposed the conflict. It was also clear that little of what was being offered would be of lasting benefit to the people of Africa. That these people were irrelevant to the concerns of the superpowers was most glaringly obvious in Angola. American officials told the government of President Jose Eduardo dos Santos that, in return for Angolan support, the US would turn a blind eye to delays in moving towards democracy.

Through it all, there was widespread dismay across the continent that the impoverished sub-Saharan state of Niger—accused without foundation of selling uranium to Iraq—was used as a pawn, and then discarded without compensation, in America’s pursuit of evidence that Iraq had been building a nuclear capability.

In the end, the United States and its allies invaded Iraq without UN sanction and African nations returned to the margins of world politics, again deprived of a significant voice. The continent licked its wounds. Its people’s lives were not in the least improved. And Africa was left with yet another memory of an encounter with great powers who clearly believe that African independence is up for sale.

In July, Africa again took centre stage during George W. Bush’s tour of the continent. Africa’s media were largely unimpressed. Kenya’s Sunday Standard made the following assessment: ‘Bush’s just-concluded visit to Africa, during which he spent more time in Air Force One than among the people of Africa, was of little consequence here.’ In equally withering tones, the Sunday Nation in Uganda (a country visited by President Bush) decided that ‘if there were any opportunities for Mr Bush to make a difference in Africa, no one can accuse him of taking them’.

And yet, Bush’s visit does have the potential to effect a radical shift in Africa’s fortunes. An underlying agenda of the president’s five-nation tour was the fact that, in the aftermath of September 11 and the war in Iraq, the United States is seeking alternative sources of oil which are not subject to the instability of countries such as Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Already the US receives more than 20 per cent of its oil imports from Africa and the US government and private sector are keen to increase Africa’s share. On this assessment, Africa could become one of the world’s largest oil-producing regions.

What worries Africans most about a boom in oil income is that royalties from African oil have a habit of ending up in the pockets of local elites who then fight each other for the spoils, while the remainder is spirited away across the sea by Western companies.

Three of Africa’s largest oil producers—Nigeria, Angola and Equatorial Guinea—provide ample reasons for taking these fears seriously. In the past decade, the number of people living in poverty in Nigeria has doubled and, in 2003, Nigeria was ranked second-to-last in Transparency International’s authoritative Corruption Perceptions Index. According to the US-based NGO, Catholic Relief Services, Angola earns $US4 billion a year from its oil industry, but $US1 billion disappears into unknown pockets, to say nothing of the country’s devastating civil war which was funded with oil and diamond revenues. For its part, Equatorial Guinea’s oil income has won it independence from aid donors who once raised serious questions about the absence of human rights protections in this autocratic one-party state.

It is therefore not surprising that local activists in Chad declared 10 October—the day of the ceremonial opening of a pipeline to carry oil from Chad’s Doba Basin to terminals off the Cameroon coast—to be a day of mourning.

Supporters of the Chadian project point to the 225,000 barrels of oil which will flow through the pipeline every day, generating annual revenues of $US80 million in what is the world’s fifth poorest country. World Bank figures suggest that, as a direct result of oil production, per capita income in Chad could rise from $US250 per year to $US550 by 2005. The World Bank, which has invested more than $US200 million in the project, has sought to head off the usual disappearance of oil revenues by ensuring that all income is paid into a London bank account whose outlays are strictly supervised by a committee of Chadian and international watchdogs. The World Bank also ensured that the Chadian government pass a law whereby 80 per cent of oil revenues must be spent on education, health, protection of the environment, improving access to clean water, rural development and infrastructure.

For all that, three years ago the Chadian government admitted that $US5 million of its initial signature payment of $US25 million was diverted to buy weapons for its war against northern rebels. Perhaps more ominously than he intended, President Idriss Deby announced at the pipeline’s opening that ‘the coming oil income should not divert from our usual economic activities’.

Among other African nations with known oil reserves, the tiny island state of São Tomé and Príncipe has already experienced a coup since bidding was opened for its offshore drilling rights earlier this year.

Colonised and plundered of people and natural resources by European powers, ruled over in many cases by corrupt, kleptocratic and violent governments, Africa is already a continent with a deeply felt consciousness of the perils arising from natural riches and fragile independence.

It is the people of nations such as these—Guinea, Cameroon, Angola, Chad and São Tomé and Príncipe—who will soon begin to feel the consequences of the US-led war in Iraq. In the process, they will be well placed to assess whether oil is a blessing, or the curse that it has proved for the Iraqi people. They will also discover whether America’s unprecedented focus on Africa is just one more example of African soil being plundered under the guise of African enrichment.

From Niamey to Dakar, from Khartoum to Yaoundé, I have heard pleas from ordinary Africans—directed at the international community and at their own governments—that the African people finally be allowed to chart their own destiny. But Africans have reason to be sceptical. Far from the world’s gaze, caught between the disappointments of their continent’s past and visions of war over oil as their future, few believe that Africa’s financial independence will finally bring power to its people.      

Anthony Ham is Eureka Street’s roving correspondent.



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