Harpers magazine interviewed journalist Nicholas Shaxson, the author of Poisoned Wells: The Dirty Politics of African Oil, asking him questions about African oil and American foreign policy. I am purchasing the book, will be reading it soon, and hope to report more. The whole article is fairly short and well worth reading:
Six Questions for Nicholas Shaxson on African Oil and American Foreign Policy
On the positive side he says:
Attitudes are changing. There’s growing awareness of environmental problems as well as rising interest in “corporate social responsibility,” so it’s a bit harder for oil companies these days to behave like colonial overlords. We are also beginning to understand the reasons for the “oil curse”—countries that strike oil tend to get poorer and more violent over time. . . Despite this new interest in the “oil curse”, old habits and temptations will always remain, because of the lure of oil.
And about the oil curse:
This is a pattern in oil zones. Villagers fight each other for compensation or jobs, and politicians fight each other for access to the oil money.
Shaxon discusses Gabon’s President Omar Bongo, the oil based sway he held over French politics, and whether similar scenarios exist or may evolve. With the private mercenary contractors and mini-CIAs that have grown up under Bush Cheney in Iraq, this may become a more pressing and complicated question. He points out that corruption is hardly a monopoly of African governments; western governments and financial institutions contribute more than their share to corrupt practices.
Shaxon also discusses the effect of oil on both Nigeria and Angola:
Q: A CIA official once told me that the consensus among Nigerians was that the country would have been better off if the oil was still in the ground. Has oil really been so detrimental to African countries that they’d be better off without it?
A: Angola’s oil-laden budget this year is about the same size as all foreign aid to all of sub-Saharan Africa—but according to the United Nations, Angola’s infant mortality is the second worst in the world, worse even than Afghanistan’s. At the start of the last oil boom in 1970, one-third of Nigerians lived in poverty; now, four hundred billion dollars in oil and gas earnings later, two-thirds are poor. People often put the problem like this: oil money would be a blessing but politicians steal it, so people don’t see the benefits. But it’s much worse: the oil wealth not only doesn’t reach ordinary people, but it actively makes them poorer. (emphasis mine) It took me years to really accept this counter-intuitive idea. But after all I’ve seen, I have no doubts.