The Next Fix

Lara Pawson

  • Poisoned Wells: The Dirty Politics of African Oil by Nicholas Shaxson
    Palgrave, 280 pp, £15.99, May 2007, ISBN 978 1 4039 7194 4
  • Oil Wars edited by Mary Kaldor, Terry Lynn Karl and Yahia Said
    Pluto, 294 pp, £17.99, March 2008, ISBN 978 0 7453 2478 4
  • Untapped: The Scramble for Africa’s Oil by John Ghazvinian
    Harcourt Brace, 320 pp, $25.00, April 2007, ISBN 978 0 15 101138 4

African oil is sweeter and lighter than Middle Eastern crudes and in recent years it has begun to look increasingly desirable. For political reasons, it became especially attractive after 9/11, and today the US imports more oil from Africa than from the entire Persian Gulf. But there is competition: China now imports more than a quarter of its oil from African countries and Angola has overtaken Saudi Arabia to become its chief supplier. In Poisoned Wells: The Dirty Politics of African Oil, Nicholas Shaxson argues that these developments are alarming. While the people who live in Africa’s big oil-producing countries are getting poorer and angrier, their leaders ‘have a rising tide of money at their disposal’ and are ‘fit for mischief’. He warns of a ‘cosy post-colonial complacency’ blinding Westerners to the fact that African oil isn’t a threat only to the people who live in the countries where it’s produced: it’s also ‘spreading poison deep into the fabric of the international financial system and the rich world’s democracies’.

To tell his complicated tale of oil greed, dictatorship, tax evasion, extreme wealth and extreme poverty, Shaxson draws on an eccentric cast of characters: a former Trotskyite ex-Christian Nigerian who has become a revolutionary Muslim and named his son Osama; a French spy with a Resistance past; a disreputable clan of Corsican Gaullists, one of whom is a Freemason known as ‘Monsieur Afrique’; a Moscow-born Israeli businessman who holds Angolan, French and Canadian passports and whose son owns Portsmouth Football Club; and a bookish magistrate from Norway who attempts to take on the French establishment and wrecks her marriage as a result.

Poisoned Wells concentrates on six states on the oil-rich Gulf of Guinea and opens in Nigeria: from here Shaxson leads us along his own career path as a journalist, first in Equatorial Guinea, then south to Angola, back up into Gabon and down again to Congo (Brazzaville), before a final visit to the tiny archipelago of São Tomé e Principe, where oil is yet to be drilled. All the other states he discusses are cursed by their valuable natural resource, which accounts in most cases for more than 90 per cent of export earnings. Before the years of oil dependency, Equatorial Guinea, a tiny country, produced 40,000 tons a year of the finest cocoa, while Nigeria was the world’s second biggest exporter; Angola was the fourth largest exporter of coffee. Today, local agriculture has collapsed, life expectancy is low and child mortality – like corruption, conflict and debt – is high. Most people in these oil-producing states are becoming poorer. Nigeria is Africa’s leading oil exporter and enjoys oil revenues of $350 billion, but more than 90 million Nigerians now live below the poverty line. Equatorial Guinea dropped ten places on the UN Human Development Index between 1990 and 2000, even though per capita income rose from $368 to $2000.

Shaxson provides some vivid glimpses into the misery of these seemingly rich nations, but his real concern is to explain how and why they have failed so badly. He is sceptical of the left-wing tendency to see the problem in terms of ‘Big Oil’, arguing that ‘white people and their companies no longer pull the strings in Africa.’ Given the growing competition from China, Western multinationals couldn’t put an end to the ‘resource curse’ that afflicts oil-rich countries even if they wanted to. Shaxson also dislikes moralising critiques of African leadership, and suggests that politicians there take their jobs more seriously than many in the West imagine. The key culprits are the ‘corrupting, poisonous substance’ itself and ‘the system’, that secretive world of tax havens, shell companies, pricing schemes and shielded trusts which operates in the Square Mile, Geneva, Washington, Paris, the Cayman Islands and other ‘Dracula zones’. This deterministic view sits uneasily alongside the evidence, presented later in the book, that seems to suggest it is a mistake to exonerate greedy businessmen and politicians, whether they are Western or African.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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