Book Review – Africa’s New Oil

At present, there is no political analyst, journalist or pundit that can avoid mentioning oil when examining sub-Saharan Africa’s situation and prospects. So, any new book dealing with the topic is likely to be met, at first, with some skepticism: is it really shedding new light on the issue – one could ask himself – or adding something to a years-long debate? When coming to Celeste Hicks’s Africa’s New Oil. Power, pipelines and future fortunes, published by Zed Books, the answer to both questions is, undoubtedly, yes.

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Since the beginning of the book, Hicks (a former BBC correspondent from Mali, Chad and Somalia, now working as a freelancer) makes clear that she is going to approach the issue from a very specific angle. “I will not deal in any further details with Nigeria and Angola, the classic case of resource-cursed nations … – she writes – Instead I will offer a comparative study of five newer African oil-producing countries – Chad; Niger, Ghana, Uganda and Kenya – with quite different levels of development and economies.
As suggested by the above quote, the debate on the so-called “resource curse” is the starting point of Hicks’s argument. This theory, also known as the “paradox of plenty” was developed between the 1980s and 1990s around the firm belief that – resting on the experiences of some of the oldest oil-rich countries of Africa (including the then united Sudan in addition to the already mentioned Angola and Nigeria) – an abundance of natural resources could in fact lead to socio-political conflict and slower, instead of faster, economic growth. The solutions suggested by various economists and experts ranged from not exploiting the resources until the political and institutional environment was mature enough to do so, to various mechanisms aimed at ensuring that revenues from minerals or hydrocarbons would be used for the right kind of expenditures (development projects, ‘future generations funds’, provision of basic services…).

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The first attempt to turn this approach into practice, the author recalls, was made in Chad in the early 2000s, when the World Bank became directly involved in the development of the Komé fields. The project, known as CCDP (Chad Cameroon Development Project) aimed to create a system of trackable and transparent payments from the oil companies and to commit the government to spend the earnings in poverty reduction projects. So, it is not only because of her long experience as a correspondent in the country that Hicks chooses Chad as the starting point of her analysis, even if some pieces of writing, like the description of the aftermath of the Am Dam battle, are instrumental in giving her account a more lively tone. In her view, in fact, the Central African state can be regarded as a pioneer – in both good and evil – of the experiences of other countries which are in the process either of exploiting their oil deposits or of evaluating the viability of such an industry following promising discoveries.
To those countries, thus, the reporter drives her attention after having dealt with various aspects of the case of Chad (the World Bank Project itself in Chapter 1, the current situation in Chapter 2, the role of China in Chapter 3). Chapter 4 puts Niger – currently a small-scale oil producer – under the spotlight, while Chapter 5 does the same with Ghana, seen as an example of good management, and East Africa is dealt with in Chapter 6, as the situations of Kenya and Uganda are quite similar. Oil is not being exploited yet, but both countries are trying to develop a policy and legislative framework that enables them to take the best off this new potential wealth.

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At the end of the book the author comes to a conclusion which is best summarized by a quote by UCLA professor Michael L. Ross: “Oil wealth does not affect all countries equally”. In fact, as each one of the already mentioned states has taken just some elements from the Chadian World Bank project, and as both the players involved and the context are different, the “resource curse” is not an unavoidable fate. On the other hand, the former BBC correspondent is well aware that, in order to reach acceptable results in revenue management, there are some elements that must be regarded as essential: better governance and more transparence in some deals, such as the ones offered by Chinese oil companies to many sub-Saharan countries.
Ultimately, Hicks’s study on Africa’s newest oil producers can be regarded as a highly authoritative, realistic and objective work: features which are mostly due to the author’s choice of relying mainly on firsthand information and interviews she collected in her capacity of BBC correspondent or as a freelancer, and not on academic research alone. (D.M.)
Celeste Hicks, Africa’s new oil. Power, pipelines and future fortunes, Zed Books, London 2015, 256 pp.


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