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Book Review – The wrong scramble

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Equatorial Guinea is one of the world’s poorest countries. The two main islands offer little, while the Rio Muni, the portion of country on mainland Africa, has some natural resources. People live in poverty. In 1996, oil was discovered offshore and, from 2004, it has contributed to the rise of national GDP. On paper, Equatorial Guinea is now a wealthy country. Too bad for the people, who still live in abject poverty and have seen little of the dollar downfall caused by oil exploitation.
The story in Equatorial Guinea is no different from what the people of Chad, Nigeria, and Angola have experienced in past decades. Oil wealth, in Sub-Saharan Africa, did not contribute to develop nations. Leaders such as President Denis Sassou-Nguesso of the Republic of the Congo or José Eduardo dos Santos of Angola have used their countries’ oil wealth to build enormous personal fortunes and buy the support of political allies and the military. Meanwhile, most people in these countries have benefited shockingly little.
This is evident when reading Douglas Yates’ latest book, The scramble for African Oil. Yates focuses on French speaking Africa, paying little attention to countries like Nigeria and Ghana. However, this choice does not hamper the picture that emerges. The author highlights a repetitive pattern in every country: oil wealth triggers the will to amass power, resulting in political infighting. Politicians’ greed encourages abuse of funds. Little is reinvested in the country, thus draining its resources, leaving little for a future without oil. Its citizens are deprived of development.
Douglas A. Yates is Professor of International Relations & Diplomacy at the American Graduate School, of International & Comparative Politics at the American University of Paris, and of Anglo-American Law at the University of Cergy-Pontoise. For the past twenty years, Yates has been researching, writing, publishing, and being an activist for the politics of the international oil industry, specifically on Africa’s oil dependency. He has been a consultant for governmental and non-governmental organisations such as the U.S. Department of State, the Catholic Relief Services, the South African Institute of International Affairs, the German Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, and the British Chatham House.
“What I am trying to do in this book – he says – is cover all the different kinds of problems that African oil producers face, and then show how the solutions proposed by the international community don’t solve those problems. For example, some international organisations are trying to push for more transparency, but they do not have the power to change deeply corrupt regimes. Others think democracy is the answer – Nigeria and Sao Tome show that it is not enough. Leaders must serve their people’s interests rather than those of their ethnicity or clan. I don’t look at power from above for change, but at power from below. The success stories are in South Sudan or the Niger Delta: examples of Africans taking their destinies into their own hands. What can we do outside Africa? Some solutions include boycotting African oil, distributing oil revenues directly to ordinary African citizens, and even trying to save oil revenues for future generations. All these require that African governments change. Instead, we should get our own house in order and change our own behaviour: we should stop consuming oil. The reasons are environmental and political. In the end, the African oil curse may seem like an afterthought. One day, oil will run out – it’s better to start now than to wait.”
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Yates explores the topic in detail in the first part of the book under the subtitle of ‘Power from above’, and illustrates his report with case studies from Gabon, Angola, Chad, Equatorial Guinea, and Congo-Brazzaville. The second half of the book is entitled ‘Power from below’. There, he explores the role of journalists and intellectuals, political parties and elections, armed struggles, popular resistance, bringing case studies from Cameroon, Sao Tome and Principe, Sudan, and Nigeria.
Yates’ final chapter starts by saying “those who diagnose pathologies should also offer solutions.” He then suggests a few ideas to better the situation. Some – handing out oil revenues directly to the population, boycotting African oil, stopping the consumption of oil – seem too utopian to have been penned by an astute analyst. The book is, nonetheless, an interesting study. It is well researched and an interesting read for anyone involved in African development and for those interested in understanding why African politicians care so little for their people.

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