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The Quandary of Oil in Africa

ISSUE:  Winter 2007

On November 10, 1995, after four botched attempts, Ken Saro-Wiwa was hanged by the neck and finally pronounced dead. For decades, Saro-Wiwa had been among Nigeria’s most prominent writers—a novelist, a journalist, and the creator of Africa’s most watched television drama. But in the early nineties, he joined the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) in calling for greater autonomy for the Ogoni minority, a share for the Ogoni of the incredible wealth derived from oil drilling on their lands, and reclamation of the oil-blighted Niger Delta. Protests swept the region, and Shell Oil temporarily ceased operations. In response, General Sani Abacha arrested Saro-Wiwa and eight other MOSOP leaders on trumped-up charges and sentenced them to death. Before he was executed, he demanded to know, “What have I done that I deserve death, than that I spoke the truth, demanding justice?”

Five years later, after Abacha died (of an apparent Viagra overdose in the company of two prostitutes), elections were held and Olusegun Obasanjo was named the new president. Despite grave doubts about the legitimacy of the vote count, Obasanjo appeared to be a reformer. In an encouraging early gesture, the new Nigerian constitution of 1999 guaranteed an increase in oil revenue for state governments from 1.5 to 13 percent, but only three years later, responding to a challenge by Obasanjo himself, the Supreme Court ruled that this promise only applied to offshore drilling, not oil derived from the Niger Delta. Thus, more than a decade after the death of Ken Saro-Wiwa, the inequalities there remain.

In this issue’s Portfolio, the oppressive and lawless way of life in the Delta is vividly documented in photographs by Chris Hondros and in words by John Ghazvinian. Hondros shows the effect of one gas flare—a towering flame that burns day and night—on a single village. The hot days are made hotter. The silence is shattered by the constant roar. The promised jobs in the refinery have never materialized. Ghazvinian goes further, visiting the villages, but also talking to the men who make their living by stealing oil, and even going to the home of Dokubo Asari, the warlord who orchestrates the resistance. In this last unforgettable conversation, Ghazvinian finds Asari clad, not in traditional garb, but in a Texas Longhorns football jersey while a Will Smith movie plays on a plasma screen. Every new and hopeful leader, it seems, is seduced by the West and the power of oil. Everywhere, corruption pervades.

And Nigeria is not alone. Tiny Equatorial Guinea has more than its share of graft and malfeasance, as Nicholas Shaxson reveals in his portrait of President Teodoro Obiang Nguema. Obiang’s son Teodoro, the minister of agriculture, recently bought a home in Malibu. The oceanfront mansion has a pool and a four-hole golf course—and came with a $35 million price tag. Not bad for a midlevel bureaucrat whose official annual salary is $60,000. Despite such obvious wrongdoing and continuing doubts about human rights violations, the Bush administration reestablished a US embassy in Equatorial Guinea in 2003, and the primary beneficiaries of this new friendship have been American oil giants.

No wonder Muammar al-Gaddafi is heeded when he urges the Sudanese government in Khartoum not to allow UN peacekeepers into the war-torn region of Darfur. He insists that American policy toward Darfur is driven by oil—and, sadly, he’s right. We turned away for too long because of our oil interests, and we’ve now turned our attention toward the region for the same reason. As journalist David Morse pointedly put it, “Oil was the driving force behind Sudan’s civil war. Oil is driving the genocide in Darfur. Oil drives the Bush administration’s policy toward Sudan and the rest of Africa. And oil is likely to topple Sudan and its neighbors into chaos.”

We sent J. Malcolm Garcia to neighboring Chad to investigate the effects of this oil-driven economy and to capture the lives of those caught in the midst of the Darfur conflict. Like the other contributors to this issue, Garcia finds a country so rife with corruption and greed that it is difficult to envision an optimistic future. Instead, he must agree that the country is ripe for the kind of overthrow and chaos Morse predicts.

In the face of all this, it may be tempting to throw up our hands and declare the whole continent a hopeless mess. But it’s not that easy. The International Energy Agency has estimated that global energy consumption will increase by 50 percent by 2030—that oil and gas will remain the primary resource required to meet that demand, that the United States will remain among the top consumers, and that Africa represents the largest emergent supplier. We can’t pretend that our economic future is not inextricably linked with Africa’s.

But neither can we pretend that this economic co-dependence is free of moral responsibility. We cannot claim—as many oil companies do—that we merely play by the rules and are powerless to change them. To do so would be repeating the pattern of mistakes made in the Middle East a half century ago. Instead of supporting Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran in the early 1950s, the Eisenhower administration authorized a CIA-led overthrow of the government and installed the Shah—a move that lingers in the minds of many Iranians and has served as a rallying point for generations of anti-American extremists. We dare not leave our children a broken African continent populated by the disenfranchised and the hate-filled.

That is why we have undertaken this portfolio of essays on Oil in Africa—to begin to address the issue head-on, to witness the corruption and patent unfairness of the current system, and to acknowledge our complicity is its construction and continuance. This is the second installment of our series on the challenges facing Africa in the twenty-first century. Last year, in introducing the portfolio on AIDS in Africa, I suggested that we must take a lead role in the region in order to make allies of our potential enemies. I hold firm to that belief, so let me say again, we must befriend now or defend later.

If we turn a blind eye to the suffering of the people of Africa, if we rob them of their economic ability to pull themselves up from poverty, what can we expect in return but their contempt? We must seek ways to serve our economic interests that also embody our highest democratic ideals. I’m no pie-in-the-sky idealist; I’m not even certain it is possible to satisfy everyone’s needs as resources grow increasingly scarce. But I do know that we cannot in good conscience claim to act in the collective best interest while we make a mad grab for ourselves. We also cannot ignore the environmental impact of our policies, and that is why our planned third installment in this series will focus on the Environment in Africa in Winter 2008.

For now, we would do well to remember the example of Ken Saro-Wiwa. On November 10, 2006, the Nigerian-born artist Sokari Douglas Camp unveiled a memorial to Saro-Wiwa in London. But this was no ordinary shrine. Instead of a statuary portrait of the man, Camp erected a monument to his cause: an enormous steel bus. The sculpture is modeled after the public transport so ubiquitous in Nigeria—rolling symbols of the bitter irony that many Nigerians live atop some of the richest oil fields in the world but can’t afford to buy a gallon of gas. In place of the passengers, the artist has placed nine oil drums in the seats, each bearing the name of one of the so-called Ogoni Nine.

I don’t believe that most Americans see the African people as nothing more than stacked oil drums waiting to be filled. But if we intend to change the climate of corruption in the region—and save ourselves in the process—we have a whole continent to convince.


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