Oil fuels new US interest in West Africa

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Increasing instability in the Middle East and the US’s “war on terrorism” have led Washington to show greater interest in Africa, a continent it has traditionally dismissed as being of no strategic importance. This sudden interest is shown by secretary of state Colin Powell’s recent tour of oil-producers in the region. Recent statements by US government officials and energy experts also underline the importance of the region’s oil to the US, particularly at a time of escalating instability in the Gulf States, its main energy suppliers, and of high oil prices. And while West African oil, like Russian oil, cannot replace supplies from the Middle East, US officials believe that it can play a useful role in reducing prices, in building up US energy reserves, and in helping to make good any shortfall in oil-imports from Saudi Arabia caused by political turmoil there. This explains Washington’s interest in acquiring military bases in West Africa, although its motive is not confined to the protection of its oil interests.

According to Walter Kansteiner, the American assistant secretary of state for Africa, “it is undeniable that African oil has become of national strategic importance to us”. Kansteiner, who last month was in Sao Tome, the island in the Gulf of Guinea where a US military base is about to be established and where the US had bought oil rights, is due to visit Gabon, another oil-producing country in the region. His chief, Colin Powell, went on a goodwill mission to Angola and Gabon, both major oil-exporters to the US, although they are generally neglected by American officials. And on September 13 at the UN Bush met several rulers from West Africa, which collectively supplies about 15 percent of US oil: as much as Saudi Arabia does. They included rulers from Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea and Sao Tome, who would not normally attract much White House attention. Bush has also announced plans to visit Africa early next year, with a possible stop in Nigeria, the largest oil-producer in sub-Saharan Africa and the fifth-largest exporter of oil to the US.

No one is as qualified to pronounce on the importance of West Africa’s oil supplies to the US as Spencer Abraham, the energy secretary. “Energy from Africa plays an increasingly important role in our energy security,” he told the US House International Relations Committee on the issue in June. Energy experts and oil-industry officials agree, and some of them predict that the region will become even more important than Russia as a source of oil. Robin West, chairman of Petroleum Finance, a consulting firm for the industry, argues that “West Africa will be a more important source of oil to international markets than Russia in the near to medium term.” Oil analysts also predict that a quarter of all the new, non-Gulf oil that comes onto the market in the next five years will come from sub-Saharan Africa.

According to Petroleum Finance, Nigeria is expected to increase production from the current 2.2 million to more than 3 million barrels per day by 2007; Angola’s daily production is projected to double. Equatorial Guinea is expected to double its production within three years. Other countries waiting to become oil-producers in the near future include Sao Tome and Principe, the two islands off the West African coast that comprise Africa’s smallest country, also one of its poorest.

Geologists believe that Sao Tome and Principe could be sitting on top of up to 4 billion barrels of high-quality, low-sulphur crude oil around their shores. At least 20 exploration blocks covering more than 60,000 square miles off the islands’ shores are soon to be put to tender. Exxon Mobil is expected to start drilling commercially by 2004. The two islands, about the size of London, have a population of only 160,000, who are expected to begin to prosper very quickly. But signs of instability have already begun to appear: president Fradique de Menezes, a former businessman, dismissed the government early this month, after the resignation of Victor Monteiro, the defence minister, and reports of unease among officers in the army of only 200 soldiers. The situation seems to have been prevented from deteriorating further only by the intervention of Miguel Trovoada, the popular former president. The distinct difference in the backgrounds of the islands’ ethnic groups is also a possible source of trouble. The islanders are descended from “Angolan slaves, Portuguese political undesirables, and Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition,” according to one western newspaper

But despite the fear of instability in the islands and the rest of the region, US officials are determined to grab West African oil-fields, not least because they are under pressure from the energy industry which is said to be excited about the prospect of new oil flowing from the area in the near future. African oil has at least two distinct advantages in the eyes of American officials and businessmen. One is that much of the oil lies beneath the Atlantic Ocean or near the West African coast, which makes it easier and cheaper to transport to the US than oil from the Gulf or from the Caspian Sea. The other is that Nigeria is the only sub-Saharan country that belongs to OPEC, the Organisation of Petroleum-Exporting Countries, which means that most of the new oil will not be subject to quota constraints set by OPEC. Gabon left OPEC in 1995 under US pressure, and Nigeria is said to be considering whether or not to follow suit.

The US pressure on West African governments has increased under the current US administration, as president Bush and a good number of his officials and advisors are closely linked to the oil industry. Vice-president Dick Cheney, for instance, was head of a large oil company before leaving to organise Bush’s election campaign in 2000. As soon as Bush became president he set up a working group for energy policies é a semi-official body credited with laying down the foundations of the administration’s energy strategy. Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s security consultant, for nine years held a senior administrative position in Chevron, one of the oil giants. The energy and trade secretaries also held senior posts in well-known oil companies before joining Bush in power. In order to protect their oil interests, Bush and his team are also determined to establish military bases or staging posts in the West African region. The energy industry certainly wants US military bases in the area. The African Oil Policy Initiative Group, a lobbying body with the ear of the White House, has called for an Atlantic military command post in the Gulf of Guinea, with a naval headquarters on Sao Tome.

Ominously, the presence of US troops in the region will not be confined to guarding the oil-wells leased to American companies. They will also be used to determine the policies of sub-Saharan Africa and who rules it. Bush is, after all, on record as saying that he will use his country’s military power to protect US interests, and that if necessary he will do so without reference to the United Nations. Bush’s pre-emptive and unilateral strategy also includes “regime change”. Any American industrial and military presence in sub-Saharan Africa is bound to be a destabilising factor.

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