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Last Updated: 07/14/2003
Oil, Aids and Africa
Joe Schumacher

This unprecedented oil rush dwarfs the Western aid, Africa currently relies on and provides a unique opportunity to turn the continent around. However the fear, of many of those who work in promoting sustainable development in Africa, is that this oil bonanza will never benefit the vast majority of Africans, who live in the worst poverty, and will plunge the continent further into chaos

For George Bush his current 5 day whistle stop tour through Africa will be an opportunity to remind the world, and his own electorate, of the benevolent side of the world’s sole superpower. The trip starting in Senegal, and continuing through South Africa, Botswana, Uganda and Nigeria will be heavy on trumpeting the US administrations 15$ billion Aids/HIV relief package and its commitment to helping reviving Africa from being the global basket case into the bread basket it promised to be at the end of the colonial era. Bush’s message will be that through increased American engagement in the continent, by way of aid and business investment, Africa states can learn to help themselves.

Although the Aids rescue package and trade concessions will be the centre piece of the trip, getting equal emphasis behind closed doors will be dealing with the prevailing concerns of oil and terrorism, for which Bush is sure to press for the establishment of US army bases, to be dotted around the region. Such is the adeptness of this administration to unify seemingly disparate policy concerns and emerge with a clear set of agenda goals that President Bush will be carrying a persuasive argument, that allowing America a free hand in the continent is a win, win situation for all concerned.

Top of the U.S Presidents wish-list will be Oil concessions the big multinational Oil companies. Situated just off West Africa’s West Coast are massive deposits of high quality crude oil, perfect for US refineries and geographically much closer than Gulf oil. A taskforce headed by the vice president and a savvy old oil man from way back, Dick Cheney, linked African oil imports to national security. The US geostrategic view is that all crude oil is good, and all non-OPEC oil is especially good. The goal is to take the Saudi hand off the spare oil capacity spigot," said Duncan Clarke, chairman and chief executive officer of Global Pacific and Partners International, an independent energy advisory group. If the estimates are right and the deals are struck then some $200 billion in revenues is expected to flow into African Government coffers over 10 years. This unprecedented oil rush dwarfs the Western aid, Africa currently relies on and provides a unique opportunity to turn the continent around.

However the fear, of many of those who work in promoting sustainable development in Africa, is that this oil bonanza will never benefit the vast majority of Africans, who live in the worst poverty, and will plunge the continent further into chaos. The precedents are not good. Angola, Nigeria and Gabon have been importing billions of dollars of oil for almost twenty years, and yet though the sums indicate they should be wealthy (Angola pumps a similar amount of oil as Norway and has a similar population), the people of these three countries remain amongst the worlds poorest and most likely to die of hunger, disease or war. In what academics have termed ‘paradox of plenty’, having oil wealth in an African country has had a devastating effect on that countries well being. It starts by increasing inflation which decimates the local agricultural industry and soon corrupts its leaders, corroding civil society, and exacerbating the land and tribal conflicts which has crippled Africa for so long.

If the damage done by oil in those countries is to be avoided in the rest of Africa, the culture of how oil companies interact with their host governments has to change. A number of NGO’s have identified the issue of transparency as the ingredient which can transform oil wealth from a curse into blessing. As serendipity, which seems to have a played a larger hand in this drama than is usual, would have it, the means to introduce constructive ethics, that most mercreal of quality in big business in Africa, has just recently come to hand. Last month, on the 17th, Tony Blair in conjunction with almost 40 NGO’s and a number of major oil companies introduced the blue print for a new international agreement to introduce transparency into the Extractive industry. Called the EITI, Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, it aims to ensure that all payments made by companies to Governments are publicly published. This they argue is the most important thing in changing the culture of corruption which blights many African societies.

Such a regulation would help to avoid the kind of situation as in Angola, which has seen 5 billion dollars of oil revenue over the last four years siphoned out of its national treasury through corruption, for which part of the blame can be laid at the feet of the big multinational oil companies and banks who knowingly fund and facilate this larceny.

Created in partnership between the UK Government and the wider NGO community and  it came about from the UK Governments desire to see something concrete come out of last years Johannesburg summit. Mooted by Tony Blair in August last year, after the foreign office approached the ‘Publish what you pay campaign’, a grouping of over 100 like minded NGO’s concerned with transparency, and asked for suggestions. The consequent summit in January this year, bought around the table, representatives of dozens of countries, from both sides of the equation, NGO’s, most of the major companies in the extraction sector and institutional investment interests representing over £1.75 trillion.

Though this partnership between state, private and civic is incredibly heartening, it remains, for many of those involved, merely a good start and by far a perfect solution to the problem. In the usual horse trading between power, politics and ethics that goes on at this level of embryonic global governance, NGO’s argue what is right was sacrificed for what is possible at this point in time.

The problem according to NGO’s, such as Global Witness, is that the agreement, in its current form, relies on a voluntary commitment from companies and host countries to publishing revenues. The NGO community fought vigorously for the agreement to be mandatory, arguing that this is the only realistic framework to ensure achieving complete transparency. While many companies and Governments did agree that a mandatory framework was necessary, an insurmountable stumbling block was that the US Government and some prominent American oil companies resisted any element of compulsion. The reason cited was the right to corporate confidentiality, though ideological resistance to regulation may be the guiding reason for objecting.

As significant a stumbling block as this is, activists in the 'Publish what you pay campaign' are quietly confident that on this issue at least the US Government may be flexible. Their hope that the inevitable scramble for Africa’s resources may be partially dictated by ethics, for the first time in history, is based upon what they say is the flimsiness of their opponent’s argument and some encouraging noises coming from the White House. Last month, US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, told African leaders to end corruption. “You must have transparency in your system,” he said.

The other cause for optimism not seeming as far fetched as it has in the past, in these situations, is that NGO’s are starting to see that there efforts have made major impacts of late, perhaps a reason why one wing of the White House is now gunning to curtail their power. 

The most concrete of these victories has been in the back down by Western Governments and the pharmaceutical industry in allowing generic drugs to be produced in the treatment of Aids/HIV. Because of the campaigning to raise public awareness, Aids/HIV is the one disease, amongst those ravaging Africa, albeit it is the most serious, which has been included on the list of disease for which generic drugs can produced. Most of the other disease scourges of Africa are still amongst those which are not allowed to be dealt with by generic drugs. This is a sop to the pharmaceutical companies. However it is proof of the power of NGO’s and western public opinion to shape the horse-trading that happens at the highest level.

It is here the critics of Western Governments foreign policy have played a vital role in mobilising public sentiment and converting that into real political pressure to temper the policies of their governments. Although most take it for granted, given the power of US hegemony, that Bush will have little trouble seeing his vision for American action in Africa come to pass, NGO’s involved in EITI are determined that this version will not be the final one, arguing that its watered down nature will not be enough to root out the endemic corruption in the region

Many commentators have said that this tour is an effort to get back to the platform of compassionate conservative of Bush’s election campaign. This they say is important to his re-election chances, as his conservatism with a small ‘c’ has been sidetracked by the unpredictable events of the last two year. Those still involved on the ‘Publish what you pay campaign’ and the EITI, will be working to highlight the criticalness of EITI, but in a mandatory form. Given the American oil industries opposition and Bush’s administrations own close links to big oil, it would seem a difficult task, though not impossible for the world’s most powerful man, especially if he were to put it to his backers that he was repaying Tony Blair for his support during Iraq and improving his own re-election chances.

Joe Schumacher, former news editor of the Peace and Conflict Monitor, is currently its roving correspondent.