The New Gulf Oil States


By Jean-Christophe Servant

Le Monde Diplomatique
January 8, 2003

The United States used to attach little importance to Africa, but now it is reviewing its oil sources strategy and sub-Saharan Africa, with its good quality reserves, could account for 25% of all US crude oil imports by 2015.

While the United States marshals its forces to attack Iraq, it is also engaged in an equally strategic battle several thousand kilometres away. This calm offensive, as the Nigerian daily The Vanguard calls it, targets oil reserves south of the Sahara and is designed "partly to avoid antagonising its Middle Eastern allies and partly to avoid generating a perception that it cares only about Africa's resources". According to Walter Kansteiner, US Under-Secretary of State for African affairs, African oil "has become a national strategic interest". Ed Royce, the influential Republican senator for California and chairman of the Congress African sub-committee, maintains "African oil should be treated as a priority for US national security post 9-11".

Congress and the White House have yet to make this strategy official. But discrete interventions in oil-producing countries seem to corroborate the trend, notably US support for peace talks in Sudan, at the beginning of 2002, and gentle pressure on Nigeria to leave Opec. Later in the year Colin Powell visited Gabon, the first visit for a US secretary of state. On 13 September George Bush laid on a symbolic breakfast party for 10 heads of state from central Africa. A member of the US military command in Europe, General Carlton Fulford, visited Sao Tome and Principe in July to review the security of oil operators in the Gulf of Guinea and the possibility of setting up a regional military command centre there, similar to the one in South Korea.

During the presidential election campaign Bush said that Africa "doesn't fit into the national strategic interests as far as I can see" but there is a firm economic basis for US interest in the continent. The UN Conference on Trade and Development (Unctad) estimates Africa's total oil reserves as 80bn barrels, 8% of the world's crude reserves. According to National Intelligence Council forecasts, the US could be importing as much as 25% of its oil from central Africa by 2015, compared with 16% at present.

With output of more than 4m barrels a day, sub-Saharan Africa already produces as much as Iran, Venezuela and Mexico combined. Output has increased by 36% in 10 years, compared with 16% for the rest of the world. Sudan, which started exporting oil three years ago, now outputs 186,000 barrels a day. Nigeria, Africa's leading exporter of crude oil, is set to increase daily output from 2.2m to 3m barrels, rising to 4.42m by 2020. In 2002 Angola, Africa's second largest producer, emerged from 15 years of civil war. By 2020 it is expected to double output to 3.28m barrels a day. Equatorial Guinea currently holds the record (alongside Angola) for oil prospecting permits. Over the next 20 years it could become Africa's third largest producer (ahead of Congo and Gabon) with 740,000 barrels a day.

Africa's reserves also offer political advantages. None of the countries, apart from Nigeria, belong to Opec. The New York Times quotes Roger Diwan, a managing director of the Petroleum Finance Company: "There is a long-term strategy from the US government to weaken Opec's hold on the market and one way to do that is to peel off certain countries". As Robert Murphy, a state department adviser on Africa, stresses: "Much of West Africa's oil is offshore, insulated from domestic political or social turmoil. Political discord or dispute in African oil states is unlikely to take on a regional or ideological tone that would result in a joint embargo by suppliers at once."

The Gulf of Guinea, with estimated reserves of 24bn barrels, is likely to become the world's leading deep water offshore production centre. Except for the Sudanese oilfields, Africa's reserves are just opposite the east coast of the US. The Chad-Cameroon pipeline will carry a further 250,000 barrels a day to the Atlantic. US oil companies - the two giants Exxon-Mobil and Chevron-Texaco, and operators such as Amerada Hess, Marathon and Ocean Energy - will invest more than $10bn in African oil this year.

The area became a geopolitical priority before 11 September 2001. At a meeting in 2000 on Africa's energy potential, oil companies told the Congress sub-committee on Africa just that. The Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies (IASPS), a think-tank set up in Jerusalem in 1984, played an important part in the meeting. IASPS has close links with the Likud party, a longstanding advocate of reducing dependence on Saudi oil, and US neo-conservative forces.

Victory for the Texan oil lobby

Bush's electoral success was also a victory for the Texan oil lobby. In the aftermath of the September attacks IASPS' ideas gained ground with the administration's energy advisers and with White House falcons. In January 2002 IASPS organised a symposium attended by Kansteiner and members of the Bush administration (including Barry Schutz, a specialist on Africa, and Lt-Col Karen Kwiatkowksi, an airforce officer seconded to the defence secretary). The symposium was also attended by members of Congress, following the lead of William Jefferson, representative for Louisiana, by international consultants, and senior executives from oil firms and investment funds. The meeting marked the start of the African oil policy initiative group (AOPset up to interface between private and public sectors. It produced a paper "African oil, a priority for US national security and African development ". The oil industry's message to the administration was clear - you lead, we'll follow.

Since the symposium US energy policy has shown signs of being influenced by this lobby. The national policy made public in May by the vice-president, Richard Cheney, was eloquent: "African oil tends to be of high quality and low in sulphur giving it a growing market share for refining centres on the east coast of the US". AOPIG has also intervened in Nigeria, the north of which suffers political and social unrest, dispatching oil evangelist Michael Wihbey to Lagos in July. Officially the aim was to set up a Gulf of Guinea commission representing oil producing countries in the area. Unofficially there was talk of Nigeria leaving Opec, a rumour finally denied by the government.

The AOPIG paper recommends that the US should "not repeat the mistakes of the Persian Gulf". It should attach greater importance to transparency in the declaration of oil revenues and extend customs facilities already available to African countries. It should make a cautious commitment on debt cancellation. Much would have to change for US policy to adopt good intentions. Oil and good governance are currently a contradiction. In a document published in July, the association of episcopal conferences of the Central African region stressed that: "Complicity has come into play between our political power holders and oil companies. Revenue drawn from oil exploitation strengthens state authority, which is used to the detriment of the population".

Chevron supervises 75% of oil production in Angola. According to the International Monetary Fund the futungo (the clique close to the government) embezzled more than 30% of oil profits in 2001. Equatorial Guinea, one of the smallest producing countries, is the most striking example of dubious US dealings. Its gross domestic product increased by 70% in 2001 and its reserves are estimated at 2bn barrels. Its ambassador in Washington (brother-in-law of president Teodoro Obiang) attended the IASPS symposium. The US is preparing to remove it from the list of 14 African countries with a poor human rights record and open a consulate there (closed under Clinton for budgetary reasons).

According to an investigation published by The Nation, two thirds of Equatorial Guinea's oil concessions have been awarded to US operators with close ties to the Bush administration. William McCormick, boss of CMS Energy, contributed $100,000 to Bush's presidential inauguration ceremony. Ocean Energy, another company at work in the Gulf of Guinea, employs Chester Norris as a consultant in Equatorial Guinea (he was Bush senior's ambassador there). The banana republic scenario is complete by coastguards trained by Military Professional Resources Inc, who will soon be patrolling the offshore oilfields. This private company is managed by retired high-ranking Pentagon officers.

At the Equatorial Guinea embassy in Washington they say "in our country, it is the oil companies that keep the US state department informed." Bush's projected visit this year to Africa, above all Nigeria, could prove historic.

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