POISONED WELLS: the Dirty Politics of African Oil

by Nicholas Shaxson

In March 2014 H3A’s non-fiction reading group discussed Nicholas Shaxson’s narrative based on his personal experiences as a journalist in Africa.

According to one reader the book’s core message could be summarized as follows: discovering oil in your backyard can be more of a curse than a blessing. Having said that this reader thought that Nicholas Shaxson’s review of the problems that the discovery of oil brought to the nations of West Africa ran into each other given those at the bottom of the social order were impoverished by the relentless cynicism of local politicians and generals with whom oil companies and Western politicians alike colluded, each for their own benefit. The book is reminiscent of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 in which the Bush family’s relationship with Saudi Arabia is laid bare to devastating effect. It also raised the question of Niall Ferguson’s six Killer Apps, none of which appear to flourish in any shape or form in west Africa’s ‘oil rich soil’, bringing to mind Ferguson’s conclusion that all is not yet lost for the West particularly as his apps do not seem to be taking root in the so-called BRICS countries either.

Other readers shared this view, remarking that they found the book equally depressing.

One reader drew the following lesson from the book: human beings are not very inventive when ugly; in similar situations elsewhere in the world they appear to act in the same selfish and corrupt manner.

Another reader pointed out that on the other hand if human beings did not have this greed we would still be living in caves. This was countered by the observation that other animals did not kill thousands in order to satisfy their greed. Another pointed out that the discovery of oil in America did not have the same result as in West Africa and that the same can be said for Britain and Norway while North Africa and the Middle East suffer from the same devastating corruption and collusion as West Africa. The reader defended his point of view by saying that perhaps the reason for this lay in the fact that the West by and large had already achieved Ferguson’s six Killer Apps when they discovered oil. As a result people like Rockefeller were not able to corrupt American society despite other robber barons in different areas of economic activity, despite the Great Crash of 1929 and ensuing Great Depression, which swung the pendulum the other way rather than enforcing capitalist exploitation. This can be confirmed by looking at Turkey where some of Ferguson’s Killer Apps seem to have taken root. Although there is no oil or gas in Turkey there appears to be plenty of corruption, which is sustained through collusion with Western companies and governments. However, unlike Nigeria, for instance, where the British trained civil service was fired wholesale, in Turkey the old civil service has been replaced gradually over decades. And even in the case of the military which, with the civil service formed part of the ruling elite/coalition, there had to be show trials and no executions for the AKP to succeed where the Democrat Party and its intervening successors had failed.

The point was taken up by a reader who had worked in Iraq where under Saddam, although he was a dictator, health and education were of a higher order than in Turkey at the time. This infrastructure has been willfully and perhaps intentionally destroyed by its invasion by the US and its Allies, leaving the country in bloody chaos.

Another reader summed these counter views by likening oil to cocaine: if you’re healthy when you first take it you might survive, but if you’re not then chances are you’ll become totally addicted!

The point was taken up by a former speaker who doubted that Turkey was that healthy given the recent scandals with regard to procurement of aircraft and so on from abroad, not to mention the monies found in shoeboxes. This once again brought up the question of whether those countries north of the Alps have an advantage given their moral systems. (On reflection I must quote Groucho Marx here: ‘beyond the Alps there are more Alps and the Lord Alps those that Alps themselves’ – sorry about that.) Anyway, the point was taken up by others in the group who noted that many of the countries mentioned in Shaxson’s book are really no more than collections of tribes around whom the colonial powers drew borders for their own benefit.

One reader found the book too detailed and hence boring, as did another, while yet another relished these because of the insights it gave on how people were actually organized around the oil wells and the corruption it engendered. This prompted another reader who had had friends in the oil business in the decades prior to those described in Shaxson’s book, when oil was still being sought in west Africa, to share some of the stories with the group from that time.

It was pointed out that it would be interesting to know if things were changing now that the Chinese are replacing Western oil companies in Africa; others suggested that in their experience the Chinese were even more corrupt.

A reader who had not spoken before noted that what was most striking was the poverty oil appears to have brought to countries like Nigeria where before the discovery of oil 19 million people are estimated to have been living below the poverty line whereas now this figure had risen nearly fivefold to an estimated 90 million.

Another said the book alerted the reader to how comfortable we in the West and its periphery were, and how dependent our comfort was on oil. This prompted the remark that how what we read in general alerts us to what is going on in the world now, such as the recent discovery of gas in East Africa.

The discussion then turned to the story of the French elite and its involvement with West African oil revenues and how the availability of this appears to have corrupted France’s so-called political class for decades. The discussion prompted some readers to remark on Shaxson’s colourful turns of phrase, which managed to bring to the fore his ultimate dismay. Later it brought up the corruption that oil seems to have begot Russia.

The conversation then turned to the conclusions Shaxson drew from his years in west Africa: cut our energy use, get rid of offshore tax havens and last but not least distribute the oil income directly to the citizens without bureaucratic intermediaries. This prompted the view that perhaps energy benefits should be distributed equally across the globe so that regional interest did not play the corrupting part it seems to. Certainly it was agreed that the use of oil increases carbon emissions but it was pointed out that Western economies cannot do without it, so that all talk of reduction is really window dressing. One member pointed out that the only alternative was clean nuclear energy but subsequent discussion was limited due to lack of group knowledge in this area. Conversation then returned to present knowledge of oil and gas development and its possible ill effects. This prompted a member to point out that while the effect of carbon emissions on the climate appear undeniable, the real stumbling block to less use of oil and gas by all was the overall level of population in the world, not western dependency on this form of energy; until the Industrial Revolution and the subsequent technological revolution experienced in the 20th Century, particularly in medicine and agriculture, historically the rise in world population was almost zero, so that doing away with dependency on carbon based energy also means getting rid of the majority of the world’s population unless clean nuclear energy can be had.

The same member pointed out that at this stage of development perhaps the greatest evil is the extensive existence of offshore tax havens. Quite apart from allowing oil-dictators and/or oligarchs to squirrel away their monies, it actually undermines all government (more so than kleptocracy) by enabling crime to become worldwide and thus eroding their tax bases as a result of which we cannot afford to educate or look after their citizens, let alone provide them with a decent life upon retirement. Prior to tax havens criminals were unable to launder their money and had to stash them not only in shoeboxes and suitcases but also in houses – in other words they had to keep their earnings as cash. Now the world’s financial systems are awash with criminal earnings, narcotics or other, not to mention those of a handful of oligarchs, money with which whole governments can be bought and sold or better still bullied into submission.

Discussion then turned back to the level of world population and its evils and as to whether globalization helped or hindered the greed for energy and food, and alternate energy sources. The objection raised to the idea of globalization as a stabilizing factor was that not all the socio-political structures being brought into it are of the same ilk. How can narco-states or petrol stations parading as nations (to steal McCain’s analogy for Russia) be on the same footing as those in the West, which is itself drifting towards and oligarchical system anyway? Will they not hurry the West’s demise, six Killer Apps or not?

In short, boring, depressing or otherwise the book prompted a robust discussion of the situation the world finds itself in.

Aziz Başan

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