Issue 269 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published December 2002 Copyright © Socialist Review

Oil

The new scramble for Africa

The US is eyeing up Africa's oil, as Charlie Kimber explains

The US oil multinationals' next target
The US oil multinationals' next target

In the middle of last month a group of oil executives, US government officials and African politicians met in Houston, Texas, to organise a new carve-up of Africa's resources. The background is a scramble for oil that is reshaping western policy towards West Africa. It could also lay the basis for civil wars, tension between the US and European powers and future military intervention.

For years the multinationals and powerful states have generally regarded Africa as a 'basket case', its suffering contemptuously ignored. Large parts of the continent were seen as not worth the risk of exploiting. But that is now changing. Last month's conference (registration fee $950) was organised by the Corporate Council on Africa. The CCA was established in 1992 and brings together 160 US companies which control nearly 85 percent of total US private sector investments in Africa. The conference programme laid out the prize worth fighting for: 'Africa's Gulf of Guinea region has become vital to businesses in the US petroleum industry. Production, new discoveries and exploration are growing at a fast pace. Currently the region supplies almost 15 percent of US energy needs, and imports are expected to rise to nearly 25 percent by 2005.

'This timely forum will focus on oil and gas production and opportunities for the US petroleum industry and related investors in African countries. It is designed for a senior level audience composed of African petroleum ministries and national petroleum company representatives to meet with US petroleum officials and US government personnel administering African policy.'

In the 19th century the European carve-up of Africa was carried out without any reference to Africans. Nothing so crude applies today. The Africans were allowed to come to Texas to prove their pliability, to be made aware of the potential for bribery and bullying and to see the lucrative potential for an African elite to work alongside the US corporations. The US cares nothing for the brutality of regimes like those in Congo, Gabon or Nigeria.

From Angola came the vice-minister of petroleum, the national petroleum director and various other top officials. Nigeria sent the presidential adviser on petroleum and energy. Cameroon supplied its minister of mines, water resources and energy. Chad's delegation included the minister of petroleum. And so it went on with similar politicians and bureaucrats from the Congo-Brazzaville, Equatorial Guinea, Mauritania, São Tomé and Principe, Ghana and Gabon. The programme announced, 'This event is sponsored by ExxonMobil and ChevronTexaco with support from Vanco Energy, Marathon Oil Company, and PennWell.'

This meeting confirmed a trend that has been accelerating sharply. In September George W Bush held meetings with the presidents of 11 African states, all of them oil producers or allied closely to oil producers.

The pressure for war on Iraq shows the US wants to dominate the Middle East. But it is also seeking alternative oil supplies. In recent years the country has imported more and more oil from sub-Saharan Africa. It is relatively easy to ship oil from West Africa to the US. The key state is Nigeria (whose output will rise to 4.4 million barrels a day by 2020). As a sign of goodwill, US soldiers have been sent to train Nigerian forces. Bush's advisers would not only like to have Nigeria firmly in the US camp. They also plan that Nigeria could be a regional power which could discipline the whole of West Africa in US interests. The other prime target is Angola, which is at the centre of the oil boom. Its output has increased from 722,000 barrels a day in 2001 to 930,000 this year and by 2020 it is expected to reach 3.28 million barrels a day.

Elsewhere in the region it was recently announced that the Chad-Cameroon oil pipeline project would go ahead with World Bank support. US companies Exxon and Chevron are major partners in the scheme.

Such investments require military back-up. The US government is moving to an agreement with São Tomé and Principe, the island state off the west coast of Africa, to establish a naval base there. But the US is not going to have it all its own way. There is already competition with rivals, and battles for control. Many of the countries that US firms are moving into are former French colonies and French-based TotalFinaElf has strong (and incredibly corrupt) ties with governments in Congo and Gabon. TotalFinaElf also owns the huge Girassol field in block 17 off the waters of Angola. RoyalDutch/Shell and BP are also pouring money into West Africa.

European countries are also strengthening their military intervention in West Africa. The British government has strong military links in Sierra Leone and the French government has troops in several key African oil-producing countries. For a few days in October there was tension between US and French forces that were both intervening to 'protect innocent civilians' during fighting in the Ivory Coast.

Amid all the wheeling and dealing the vast majority of Africa's people have been entirely forgotten. The past crimes of the present leaders of the US officials should certainly make Africans fear for their future. Defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld was one of the strongest lobbyists for support for Angola's murderous Unita movement in the 1970s. Dick Cheney was also a longtime supporter of Unita. George W Bush received financial backing from Pierre Falcone, one of the most notorious international arms dealers who boosted Angola's war. Falcone sold arms to Angola in breach of UN sanctions.

Such monsters have helped to create modern day Angola, a country of oil and diamonds where 1.5 million are starving, where a third of the population have fled from their homes because of the civil war, where there are nearly 100,000 disabled landmine victims and where a child dies of a preventable disease every three minutes.

West Africa has become a focus where oil and the US drive for global domination come together. For all the wrong reasons, it will no longer be a forgotten continent.


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