Untapped: The Scramble for Africa's Oil

Untapped: The Scramble for Africa's Oil

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by John Ghazvinian

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Although Africa has long been known to be rich in oil, extracting it hadn’t seemed worth the effort and risk until recently. But with the price of Middle Eastern crude oil skyrocketing and advancing technology making reserves easier to tap, the region has become the scene of a competition between major powers that recalls the nineteenth-century scramble for


Although Africa has long been known to be rich in oil, extracting it hadn’t seemed worth the effort and risk until recently. But with the price of Middle Eastern crude oil skyrocketing and advancing technology making reserves easier to tap, the region has become the scene of a competition between major powers that recalls the nineteenth-century scramble for colonization there. But what does this giddy new oil boom mean—for America, for the world, for Africans themselves?

John Ghazvinian traveled through twelve African countries—from Sudan to Congo to Angola—talking to warlords, industry executives, bandits, activists, priests, missionaries, oil-rig workers, scientists, and ordinary people whose lives have been transformed—not necessarily for the better—by the riches beneath their feet. The result is a high-octane narrative that reveals the challenges, obstacles, reasons for despair, and reasons for hope emerging from the world’s newest energy hot spot.

Editorial Reviews

Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
Few would argue against the notion that oil equals wealth. Few, that is, except the average citizens of Africa's oil-producing countries. Of course, big money is being pumped into the area just as oil is being pumped out -- $50 billion will be spent, nearly one-third of it by the United States, over the next three years. Almost without exception, from Nigeria to Chad, Congo to Angola, Sierra Leone to Equatorial Guinea, a pattern emerges: There is precious little percolation of oil wealth from top to bottom.

The lack of proper monetary distribution fuels other problems. Greed unites local politicians and foreign oil executives, to the detriment of nearly everyone else. Inflation, driven by the influx of foreign currency, further impoverishes villagers; agriculture, once the foundation of their economies, collapses, and the onetime breadbasket nations of the continent can no longer feed even themselves. Starvation, corruption, and myriad social ills follow.

Ghazvinian traveled to each country to assess the situation, an often-dangerous enterprise that made possible this thoughtful (and despite its serious subject matter, wholly entertaining) assessment of both the pitfalls and potential of oil exploration on Africa. With observations as witty as they are wistful, he illuminates a murky mega-business in a distant part of the world, which impacts our lives, and even more, the lives of those living in its shadow every day. (Summer 2007 Selection)
Publishers Weekly

With American relations in the Middle East on shaky ground, the U.S. government and the petroleum industry have turned to Africa as a new source of oil, investing more than a billion dollars a year in the continent since 1990. China and India are also looking to African crude oil, which is "lighter" and "sweeter" than its Arab counterpart and thus requires less costly refining, to fuel their booming economies. So Ghazvinian, an Oxford historian armed with "a suitcase full of notepads and malaria pills, and a sweaty money belt stuffed with $100 bills," toured a dozen oil-producing nations to see how they'd been affected by the oil boom. What he finds is internal strife: in Nigeria, the only thing that keeps one group of interview subjects from assaulting him is that he doesn't work for Shell. Later, an official in the "self-parodying burlesque of a tin-pot kleptocracy," Equatorial Guinea, makes a not-so-veiled threat after soliciting a bribe falls through. Even more stable nations have their problems: in Gabon the national economy was so transformed by oil that the government has to import most of its food from neighboring countries. Ghazvinian's ground-level interviews bring perspective to the chaos, though readers may wish for a map to follow his path through the unfamiliar territory. (Apr.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Kirkus Reviews
Africa has long gone ignored almost everywhere outside Africa. But now that oil is scarcer and the continent has plenty of it, writes journalist/historian Ghazvinian, drillers and diplomats are paying attention. Since 1990, Ghazvinian observes, the petroleum industry has invested $20 billion in exploration and development in Africa. In the next three years alone, another $50 billion will be spent, "and around one-third of it will come from the United States." Most of this exploration centers around the Gulf of Guinea, a nearly ideal location, since it's offshore and thus perhaps not subject to the whims of landlubber dictators and corrupt officialdom and civil wars, things that plague places such as Sierra Leone and Nigeria; the Gulf also offers easily accessible sea lanes leading to Europe and the Americas, and, perhaps best of all, no sub-Saharan African countries belong to OPEC. Considering the sorry state of some sorry African states, notably Equatorial Guinea, an "overnight emirate" whose oil wealth goes straight into the ruling family's coffers, the oil developers are wise to stay out in the deep. Even so, Ghazvinian notes, because of the rich reserves the Gulf of Guinea holds, certainly as compared to the "sour" oil of places such as Chad, West Africa is now being overrun and contested; Nigeria and Angola jockey for political dominance in places such as Sao Tome and Principe, shady neocolonialists wander the streets of West Africa's capitals and everywhere one looks, China is suddenly a major presence, having smartly committed to foreign aid and infrastructure development while the West was looking the other way. Ghazvinian's grand-tour narrative has moments of lucid observationand sharp description that would do Graham Greene proud. Still, one wonders about his optimistic conclusion when past scrambles for Africa have hardly worked to Africans' advantage.
The Economist

"Like the cars that might one day make the Western world a bit less reliant on crude oil, Untapped is a hybrid; part travelogue, part analysis and part lament. It is also well timed."
" ... [a] deftly reported book ... "

"Ghazvinian, who has a doctorate in history from Oxford, a sure hand with economic theory, and a journalist's touch for capturing the telling detail, delivers an account that would be wildly entertaining if the story he was telling wasn't so full of heartbreaking poverty, venality, corruption and violence."
The Boston Globe

"Untapped is John Ghazvinian's riveting account and superb analysis of what African oil means to a fuel-hungry world and to the African nations involved."

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chapter 1
The Onshore Effect
“i bet you don’t dare touch the salad.”
           It was my first week in Africa, and I must have looked every inch the amateur because I was being teased mercilessly.
           “It’s fine, you know. It’s not going to make you sick. Not like the salads you get in London.”
           I was at lunch with Adwoa Edun, a Ghanaian-born, half-British owner of a Lagos bookshop who also happens to be married to a senior politician in the Lagos State government. Between lashings of gentle mockery, she was giving me her perspective as an expatriate African who had made Nigeria an adopted homeland.
           “Nigerians have a tolerance level that is beyond any I have ever seen,” she said. “You know, living in Nigeria, there are so many times when I have thought to myself, okay, this is it, Adwoa. We are going to have to pack our bags now. Where are we going to go? But then, every time, the country just somehow muddles through.”
           Sooner or later, every expatriate conversation about Nigeria comes around to some version of this conclusion—that here is a country with an unparalleled knack for survival, an almost inspired ability to lurch from crisis to crisis, even to the point of what to outside eyes resembles anarchy, before retreating from the brink and sliding back into a low-intensity seethe.
            Most such conversations then turn to the subject of oil, and the volatile politics of the Niger Delta. Ours was no exception. Adwoa had no special expertise on the matter, but I had declared my intention to visit the Delta, so she agreed to give me a little friendly advice. She took my pen and notepad, and drew three large dots about an inch apart, which she labeled “Benin City,” “Sapele,” and “Warri.” Bisecting Sapele, she drew a pair of faint wavy lines. On the Benin side of the wavy lines, she wrote peace. On the Warri side: trouble.
           “Living in Lagos,” she said, “this is all we ever really know about the Delta. That if you head southeast, there is only so far you can go before you start to run into trouble.”
           “Trouble,” in my limited experience, is a word people use when they are trying not to say “war.” Growing up, I heard the conflict in Northern Ireland described by successive British governments as “the Troubles,” before it was finally put to a peace process. It’s one of those words, like “inclement” or “unhygienic,” all middle-class and squeamish, that masks the true extent of the lurking horror. It’s the kind of word that stops a conversation before it starts to get awkward; that signals, with a flick of the eyebrow and the tapping of a pen, that no more questions will be entertained today, thank you very much. “There’s been some trouble,” to the foreign journalist in Africa, generally means the shit has hit the fan.
           By anyone’s definition, the Niger Delta today is a place of troubles. Gangs of teenagers cruise the creeks and swamps in speedboats, bristling with automatic weapons. Oil is sucked out of pipelines under cover of night and sold on the black market to raise money for rival warlords. Foreign oil workers are routinely kidnapped and held for ransom. Flow stations and other oil installations are attacked and vandalized, and a general climate of impunity infects the most mundane of interactions.
           Trying to untangle—much less convey—the complexities and contours of the troubles in the Niger Delta could easily become the work of a lifetime; but, as with most human conflict, its causes can be boiled down to money, land, and ethnic rivalry. The Niger Delta is made up of nine states, 185 local government areas, and a population of 27 million. It has forty ethnic groups speaking 250 dialects spread across 5,000 to 6,000 communities and covers an area of 27,000 square miles. This makes for one of the highest population densities in the world, with annual population growth estimated at 3 percent. About 1,500 of those communities play host to oil-company operations of one kind or another. Thousands of miles of pipelines crisscross the mangrove creeks of the Delta, broken up by occasional gas flares that send roaring orange flames into the already hot, humid air. Modern air-conditioned facilities sit cheek by jowl with primitive fishing villages made of mud and straw, surrounded with razor wire and armed guards trained to be on the lookout for local troublemakers. It is—and always has been—a recipe for disaster.
           The problem, in a nutshell, is that for fifty years, foreign oil companies have conducted some of the world’s most sophisticated exploration and production operations, using millions of dollars’ worth of imported ultramodern equipment, against a backdrop of Stone Age squalor. They have extracted hundreds of millions of barrels of oil, which has been sold on the international market for hundreds of billions of dollars, but the people of the Niger Delta have seen virtually none of the benefits. While successive military regimes have used oil proceeds to buy mansions in Mayfair or build castles in the sand in the faraway capital of Abuja, many in the Delta live as their ancestors would have done hundreds, even thousands of years ago—in hand-built huts of mud and straw. And though the Delta produces 100 percent of the nation’s oil and gas, its people survive with no electricity or clean running water. Education is patchy, with one secondary school for every 14,000 people. There are few public services available in the Delta, and those that do exist are difficult to reach because there are no roads. Seeing a doctor can mean traveling for hours by boat through the creeks.
           Occasionally, oil has been spilled into those creeks, and fishing communities disrupted, dislocated, or plunged into violent conflict with one another over compensation payments. When the people of the Delta have tried to protest, they have been bought off, set against one another, or shot at. The rampant criminality, lawlessness, and youth unrest that have plagued the Delta as a result are perhaps technically “troubles” rather than active warfare, of the kind that makes the evening news and furrows brows at dinner parties. But to those who eke out a meager living in the sweltering, isolated fishing villages in the swamps and estuaries of the Delta, caught between the security forces hired by international oil companies to guard their multimillion-dollar networks of pipelines and flow stations, the roving bands of angry ethnic militias determined to disrupt their operations, and the soldiers and special police units of the Nigerian state—all sides armed to the teeth—the distinction is largely academic. On a good day, they will push off into the morning mist in their hollowed-out wooden pirogues and return in the evening with a few sickly-looking croaker and catfish that they will dry in the sun for another day.
           On a bad day, they might not come back at all.
           Even the most conservative estimates of the death toll—perhaps a thousand people every year—nudge it into the category of “high-intensity conflict,” alongside such better-known hot spots as Chechnya and Colombia. In March 2005 the Niger Delta’s seemingly intractable problems had become so severe that it prompted the U.S. National Intelligence Council to identify the “outright collapse of Nigeria” as one of the most significant “downside risks” threatening the stability of all of sub-Saharan Africa in coming years.
The largest denomination of banknote in Nigeria is the 500-naira note, worth (at press time) a little under $4. On its front is a portrait of Nnamdi Azikiwe, the Igbo nationalist leader who helped broker Nigeria’s independence from Britain in 1960. On the reverse is a picture of an oil derrick. Both images are a reminder of a time when Nigeria seemed to stand on top of the world—sure of itself, confident about its future, and firmly in control of its destiny. It was the age of African liberation, when it felt as if a new country was being born every few weeks, its heroes brimming with promises about life without the yoke of colonialism. Nigeria, with an enormous population sitting on some of the world’s largest hydrocarbon deposits, seemed poised to become an African superpower.
           Along the way, though, something went terribly wrong. The country’s overall economy has shrunk and the standard of living of its 130 million people declined steadily since independence, to the point where the World Bank now ranks Nigeria as one of the world’s twenty poorest countries. Today, in a country that pumps more than 2 million barrels of oil a day and has the distinction of being the world’s seventh-largest oil producer, 57 percent of the people live on less than $1 a day. And that percentage rises to 70 percent in the Delta.  Even gasoline, which should be cheap and plentiful, is instead almost entirely imported from abroad at great cost, thanks to the near-total collapse of Nigeria’s refineries.

Copyright © 2007 by John Ghazvinian
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Meet the Author

JOHN GHAZVINIAN has a doctorate in history from Oxford. He has written for Newsweek, the Nation, Time Out New York, and other publications. Born in Iran and raised in London and Los Angeles, he currently lives in Philadelphia, where he teaches in the Critical Writing Program at the University of Pennsylvania.

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