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September 2003
Eyes on the Prize: In Africa, Bush was a Busy Bee

By Catherine Clyne



Oil for meds. That was the deal offered by George W. Bush to a handful of countries during his brief (five-day) visit to Africa this past July. The goal? To convince African governments to allow U.S. troops into their countries to secure access to oil; in return, among a few other incentives, the U.S. would make medicines more available to people with HIV/AIDS. Bush also said that this will help prevent terrorism in African nations.

Currently, the U.S. imports as much oil from West Africa as from Saudi Arabia. And within the next few years, African oil is expected to supply roughly 25 percent of the oil Americans consume—we’re not talking chump change.

Bush and the Pentagon want to send between 5,000 and 6,500 troops to Djibouti, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, Senegal and Uganda (for starters) to protect U.S. oil interests on a semi-permanent basis. The idea is to strengthen military ties and install new bases. There’s talk of establishing a military presence similar to that in Korea. Policy-makers are even eyeballing two islands off of western Africa—Sao Tome and Principe—as possible locations for a command home base.

The National Energy Policy Report released by Vice President Dick Cheney and his mythic energy clique in May of 2001 called for a “major diversification” of oil supplies, moving away from reliance on “volatile and unfriendly” oil-bearing regions. The report said that West Africa is expected to be “one of the fastest growing sources of oil and gas for the American market.”

In 2001 “there were eight billion barrel finds of oil in the world; seven of those were off the coast of West Africa,” says Rep. William Jefferson, co-chair of the Africa Trade and Investment Congressional caucuses. “When reserves in the Middle East are compared to the reserves in Africa, all I can say is that we don’t quite know what we’re talking about. No one knows yet how much oil there is off the West Coast of Africa or in West Africa.”

The implications are staggering.

Trickle Up Wealth?
The crown jewel is Nigeria, the fifth largest oil-producing country in the world. Abundant oil reserves lie off the western coast and in the Niger Delta, untapped and free for the taking. Dick Cheney observes that African oil is of better quality than Middle Eastern, requiring less refining (he would know). It’s also a lot easier to transport to the U.S.—just a quick jaunt across the Atlantic. And let’s face it, details about the chummy relationship between the Bush family and the Saudi royals are bound to come out, and the administration would be wise to distance itself from the Saudis. So West Africa is looking pretty good.

The U.S. hopes to double its Nigerian oil imports in the next five years, from 900,000 to around 1.8 million barrels daily. Currently the U.S. is pressuring Nigeria to withdraw from OPEC (the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries), the Middle East-dominated cartel that controls global oil prices. Movement away from OPEC members is part of the energy diversification plan and will give the U.S. more control over the market.

But Nigeria isn’t exactly a peaceable kingdom. That Nigeria is controlled by a military dictatorship infamous for its human rights abuses isn’t the concern. It’s the continuing strife, especially in the oil-rich Niger Delta.

U.S. investment in oil production is uniformly cloaked in the rubric of “development,” implying that African people will benefit from the industry. If Nigeria serves as a model, “development” will simply facilitate a widening of the gap between a wealthy elite and the rest of the country—70 percent of Nigerians subsist on less than a dollar a day. Despite the $300 billion in oil revenue generated, the average Nigerian today is worse off than 25 years ago. And if the experiences of the Ogoni people with Shell oil is any example of what development will mean for people living on oil-rich land or in the path of a future pipeline, there is serious cause for worry. The Ogoni have been struggling for years to protect their native lands from drilling, pipelines and pollution. People have been continuously terrorized—forcibly evicted and severely beaten—or imprisoned, or have ended up dead, like Ken Saro-Wiwa, executed by the Nigerian government [see his final words].

So what does Africa gain? (Not that it’s much of an issue, since rebuffing an offer from the U.S. can have extremely damaging consequences.) In addition to a cut in oil revenues, African countries will gain access to HIV/AIDS medications (but not medicines for curable diseases, such as malaria and tuberculosis, which unnecessarily kill millions), made affordable by coaxing the pharmaceutical industry into relaxing their international patent rights. Bush also promises to open up the U.S. market to African farmers. But there are no plans to reduce the enormous government subsidies to U.S. farmers, a sum larger than many African economies, and three times the total amount of aid the U.S. gives to the entire African continent. Given that the average GDP per capita in Africa has actually declined by 15 percent over as many years, and some 70 percent of Africans are involved in agricultural production, this doesn’t seem like much of a deal.

The Game Plan
Like everybody, I’m sick of talking about oil. Yet, oil—or more importantly, U.S. access to it—has been a top priority for American policy-makers for decades. As we learned from the price-gouging and rolling blackouts in California a few summers ago, it’s the gatekeepers who determine our access to energy and how much we pay for it. They also dictate what kind of energy Americans shall use: consistently, conservation is never mentioned as a viable component of a sensible energy policy. There is no intention to get Americans to reduce their energy consumption.

At the July 3rd press conference before his trip to Africa, Bush was asked how he would respond to those who claimed that his primary interest in Africa was oil. “Conspiracy theorists [are] about everywhere, I guess,” he answered. “That’s one of the most amazing conspiracies I’ve heard. Heck, no one has ever made that connection.”

Well, Dick Cheney did. His energy policy released just five months after taking office figured Africa as a key player for diversification.

So did the Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies, a Jerusalem-based think-tank that influences government policy, which held a symposium entitled “African Oil: A Priority for U.S. National Security and African Development” in January of 2002. Among oil industry brass and officials from the Departments of State and Defense, speakers included Walter Kansteiner, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs and Rep. Edward Royce, Chair of the House Subcommittee on Africa. In attendance were ambassadors and representatives from Algeria, Angola, Cameroon, Congo, Ghana, Namibia, Nigeria, South Africa, and “the promising oil-producing country of Equatorial Guinea.”

“It is very difficult to imagine a Saddam Hussein in Africa [or] how our dependency on oil could be politically threatened on the continent,” Rep. Royce observed, adding, “and anyway, most of the production is offshore.” Rep. William Jefferson agreed: “Things usually work fairly well if you’re out in deep water.” In other words, a docile, economically crippled continent will not inconvenience oil production; and concentration offshore in the Gulf of Guinea—aka the “New Gulf”—will insulate production from would-be saboteurs.

There was some discussion of the relationship between oil and violence, corporate interests and government corruption, and some hand-wringing over the transparency of oil profit management. But happily, there’s a model. As Robert Murphy, a State Department intelligence official, summed it up: “The Chad-Cameroon pipeline agreement with the World Bank may provide a model for new oil states. Equatorial Guinea may soon be producing as much oil per capita as Saudi Arabia and offer[s] an unprecedented opportunity for economic development.”

Along with dozens of human rights and environmental groups, even the Department of State and the World Bank have expressed concern over the substantial environmental damage from construction of this pipeline and the misuse of oil revenues by the Chad and Cameroon governments. Local and international groups have alleged human rights abuses throughout construction, while the World Health Organization has warned of links between the pipeline workers and the spread of diseases, including HIV.

No leaf went unturned. Malcolm Morris, of Stewart Information Services Corps., was on hand with pointers on real estate privatization. As the white paper produced by the symposium explains: “Efforts to promote private sector economic development, such as oil, depends in part on fast, accurate and clearly defined legal rights in land and on accurate systematic demarcation of legal boundaries between tracts of land.” In other words, having resided on the same land for generations may not be enough if there are no papers to prove it, and land disputes with the oil industry or complaints of environmental destruction can be smoothed over with the proper paperwork.

A Word About Money

In March of 2001, Bush announced with much fanfare the creation of the “Millennium Challenge Account” to distribute $15 billion over the next three years to countries in need, much of it for Africa. A CEO was appointed, and criteria for countries applying for funds and guidelines for financial management were established. This summer, Bush uttered the magic number again. “Over the next five years, my country will spend $15 billion to fight AIDS around the world, with special focus here on the continent of Africa,” he announced to a crowd in Nigeria. Now, is that an additional $15 billion? However much the administration plans to distribute, as of today, not $1 has been appropriated. To make a substantial dent in the HIV/AIDS crisis, the UN estimates it needs $7 to $10 billion for its Global AIDS Fund. So far, the U.S. has tossed $200 million into the donation jar.

In the scheme of things, $15 billion really isn’t much. By the end of this year, U.S. investment in African oil is expected to exceed $10 billion a year; and over the next decade, between two thirds and three fourths of investment in Africa will be in the energy sector. That doesn’t leave much for people, which is a reoccurring theme in this administration.

The New Gold Rush
At the conclusion of his African tour, Bush gave a final address. Among those he welcomed and thanked was Chevron CEO Dave O’Reilly, who “understands the definition of corporate responsibility, and I appreciate the leadership of Dave and Chevron. Their job is not only to make a return for their shareholders, their job is to show compassion, as well. And I appreciate your leadership, Dave.”

Responsibility, leadership and compassion. These are the three characteristics Bush says he admires most, but not one of them can be applied to his actions or those of his administration. Trading access to medicines, like a chip in a poker game, is hardly responsible—never mind compassionate. Outright and continuous lying about government policy is not a shining example of leadership.

Kvetching about Bush and co. may feel good but clearly, none of us are off the hook. We have to take responsibility for our own role in this mess. After all, it’s not just SUV drivers who guzzle up oil. Here in the U.S., petroleum products are ubiquitous, many of which we give little thought to the ways they make our lives more comfortable.

The April issue of The Ecologist ran an exhaustive A to Z list of oil products—adhesives and asphalt, balloons bandages and bras, CDs computers and credit cards, etc. So what are we going to do, eradicate every petroleum product from our lives?

Given the violence, destruction, poverty and greed generated by it, the question that keeps bothering me is: Is oil more valuable than life?

There are no easy answers. Ultimately, what we value more—oil or life—will be decided by our actions, not our words. Sadly, empty promises are to be expected from government administrations, but what of the promises we make ourselves? If living more compassionately is truly a goal, then hard decisions will have to be made by all of us. True, we may have to give up a few conveniences, but the return we stand to gain as both a global village and as individuals, is far more important—and valuable.

Sources: White House transcripts, the Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies (, and the Institute for Policy Studies (


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