ODIOMA, NIGERIA: A villager walks through the ruins of the southern Nigerian community of Odioma, a fishing and trading centre, and a historic centre for the Ijaw people in the oil-rich Niger Delta. It was burned to the ground on 19 February 2005 by government troops. 17 people were reported to have been killed and two women raped when soldiers raided the town of Odioma. The attack was ostensibly to arrest members of an armed vigilante group suspected of killing 12 people, including four local councillors. Some of the raiders were reported to have been recruited by a sub-contractor of Shell’s subsidiary in Nigeria and to be responsible for security in an area where oil exploration was being conducted, despite their alleged criminal record. The suspects were not captured but 80 per cent of homes in Odioma were razed. . . . “We have nothing… If we protest, they send soldiers. They sign agreements with us and then ignore us. We have graduates going hungry, without jobs.” Eghare W.O. Ojhogar, chief of the Ugborodo community in Delta State

Here is the core of the debate over African oil development:

  • Can oil revenues be made to work for Africans or will they profit only the corrupt few?
  • Are oil revenues destined to fuel civil wars and pay for the abuse of human rights or can they build peace and prosperity?
  • Is oil development in Africa’s interest or in the interest of the United States (or, I would add, can the two interests be balanced)?
  • Can African oil and gas reserves be exploited without harming the environment, or is the expansion of the world’s oil-based economy ultimately inimical to our collective future on this planet?

There has been an enormous amount of contact and activity between the US and African countries in recent months.

From oil rich northern Angola up to Nigeria, from the Gulf of Guinea to Morocco and Algeria, from the Horn of Africa down to Kenya and Uganda, and over the pipeline routes from Chad to Cameroon in the west, and from Sudan to the Red Sea in the east, US admirals and generals have been landing and taking off, meeting with local officials.

They’ve conducted feasibility studies, concluded secret agreements, and spent billions from their secret budgets. Their new bases are not bases at all, according to US military officials. They are instead “forward staging depots”, and “seaborne truck stops” for the equipment which American land forces need to operate on the African continent. They are “protected anchorages” and offshore “lily pads” from which they intend to fight the next round of oil and resource wars, and lock down Africa’s oil and mineral wealth for decades to come.

. . . it’s about the oil. And the diamonds, and the uranium, and the coltan. But mostly about the oil.

When we ask the question; i
s oil development in Africa’s interest or in the interest of the United States? I would argue that unless it can be made in the interest of both, it is in the interest of neither. Unfortunately, the leadership in both places seems to have very little interest in the well being of the people they govern. And the leadership in both the US and in Africa seem to be thinking very short term. Even those countries in Africa that have some form of democracy, seem to want to practice something closer to a Bush administration style kleptocracy, rather than practicing more representative democracy.

And without more local and democratic participation in the decision making, and the profits, we have an unfolding environmental nightmare that is a political nightmare as well.

“West Africa alone sits atop 15% of the world’s oil, and by 2015 is projected to supply a up to a quarter of US domestic consumption.” A foretaste of American plans for African people and resources in the new century can be seen in Eastern Nigeria. US and multinational oil companies like Shell, BP, and Chevron, which once named a tanker after its board member Condoleezza Rice, have ruthlessly plundered the Niger delta for a generation. Where once there were poor but self-sufficient people with rich farmland and fisheries, there is now an unfolding ecological collapse of horrifying dimensions in which the land, air and water are increasingly unable to sustain human life, but the region’s people have no place else to go.
. . .
In a typical gesture of disregard for local black lives and livelihoods, the natural gas which sits atop many oil deposits but is more expensive to capture and process than petroleum is simply burned off or flared at African wellheads. Throughout the 1990s it is estimated that 29 million cubic feet per day of Nigerian natural gas was disposed of in this manner. Many of the flares, according to local Niger delta residents, have burned continuously for more than twenty years, creating a toxic climate of acid fogs and rains, depositing layers of soot and chemicals that stunt or kill ocean and riverine fish and livestock, and poison the few surviving crops. For this reason, flaring at oil wells has long been outlawed in the US. But many African communities near the mouth of one of the planet’s largest rivers are now entirely dependent on water trucked in from outside.
. . .
Local Africans are demanding respect and a share in what is after all, their oil. They are now routinely, viciously suppressed in eastern Nigeria, in Equatorial Guinea and elsewhere, by African troops trained and equipped with American tax dollars. When resistance continues, as it certainly will, America is preparing to up the ante with more American equipment, with military and civilian advisers, with bombs, bullets and if need be, with American bodies. That’s what AFRICOM is about, and what it will be doing in the new century.

I hope this is an unduly pessimistic view. But keep in mind that it’s the Bush administration that is “looking after” US interests here. With the history of western involvement in Africa in mind, which continues to the present day, and the track record of Bush/Cheney, this pessimism looks like matter-of-fact realism, maybe even sunny optimism.

This is probably the single largest foreign policy-related failing among American politicians and members of the policy and media elites: A failure to make a serious effort to ask how things look from the perspective of other countries.