Scramble For Africa's Oil
By Christopher Thompson
20 June, 2007
The New Statesman
Pentagon is to reorganize its military command structure in response
to growing fears that the United States is seriously ill-equipped to
fight the war against terrorism in Africa. It is a dramatic move, and
an admission that the US must reshape its whole military policy if it
is to maintain control of Africa for the duration of what Donald Rumsfeld
has called "the long war." Suddenly the world's most neglected
continent is assuming an increasing global importance as the international
oil industry begins to exploit more and more of the west coast of Africa's
The Pentagon at present has
five geographic Unified Combatant Commands around the world, and responsibility
for Africa is awkwardly divided among three of these. Most of Africa
- a batch of 43 countries - falls under the European Command (Eucom),
with the remainder divided between the Pacific Command and Central Command
(which also runs the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan). Now the Pentagon
- under the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the defense department - is working
on formal proposals for a unified military command for the continent
under the name "Africom." This significant shift in US relations
with Africa comes in the face of myriad threats: fierce economic competition
from Asia; increasing resource nationalism in Russia and South America;
and instability in the Middle East that threatens to spill over into
The Pentagon hopes to finalize Africom's structure, location and budget
this year. The expectation is that it can break free from Eucom and
become operative by mid-2008.
"The break from Europe
will occur before 30 September 2008," Professor Peter Pham, a US
adviser on Africa to the Pentagon told the New Statesman. "The
independent command should be up and running by this time next year."
A Pentagon source says the
new command, which was originally given the green light by the controversial
former US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, is likely to be led by
William "Kip" Ward, the US army's only four-star African-American
general. In 2005, Ward was appointed the US security envoy to the Middle
East and he is reportedly close to President George W. Bush. He also
has boots-on-the-ground experience in Africa: he was a commander during
Bill Clinton's ill-fated mission in Somalia in 1993 and he served as
a military representative in Egypt in 1998. Ward is now the deputy head
America's new Africa strategy
reflects its key priorities in the Middle East: oil and counter-terrorism.
Currently, the US has in place the loosely defined Trans-Sahara Counter-Terrorism
Initiative, incorporating an offshoot of Operation Enduring Freedom
that is intended to keep terrorist networks out of the vast, unguarded
Sahel. But the lack of a coherent and unified policy on Africa is, according
to some observers, hampering America's efforts in the Middle East. US
military sources estimate that up to a quarter of all foreign fighters
in Iraq are from Africa, mostly from Algeria and Morocco.
Moreover, there is increasing
alarm within the US defense establishment at the creeping "radicalization"
of Africa's Muslims, helped along by the export of hardline, Wahhabi-style
clerics from the Arabian peninsula.
"The terrorist challenge
[has] increased in Africa in the past year - it's gotten a new lease
on life," according to Pham.
But it is the west's increasing
dependency on African oil that gives particular urgency to these new
directions in the fight against terrorism. Africa's enormous, and largely
untapped, reserves are already more important to the west than most
In March 2006, speaking before
the Senate armed services committee, General James Jones, the then head
of Eucom, said: "Africa currently provides over 15 per cent of
US oil imports, and recent explorations in the Gulf of Guinea region
indicate potential reserves that could account for 25-35 per cent of
US imports within the next decade."
These high-quality reserves
- West African oil is typically low in sulphur and thus ideal for refining
- are easily accessible by sea to western Europe and the US. In 2005,
the US imported more oil from the Gulf of Guinea than it did from Saudi
Arabia and Kuwait combined. Within the next ten years it will import
more oil from Africa than from the entire Middle East. Western oil giants
such as ExxonMobil, Chevron, France's Total and Britain's BP and Shell
plan to invest tens of billions of dollars in sub-Saharan Africa (far
in excess of "aid" inflows to the region).
But though the Gulf of Guinea
is one of the few parts of the world where oil production is poised
to increase exponentially in the near future, it is also one of the
most unstable. In the big three producer countries, Nigeria, Equatorial
Guinea and Angola, oil wealth has been a curse for many, enriching political
elites at the expense of impoverished citizens. Angola is now China's
main supplier of crude oil, supplanting Saudi Arabia last year. The
Chinese, along with the rest of oil- hungry Asia, are looking covetously
at the entire region's reserves.
Realpolitik of What
Looming over West Africa
is the spectre of the southern Niger Delta area, which accounts for
most of Nigeria's 2.4 million barrels a day. Conflict here offers a
taste of what could afflict all of sub-Saharan Africa's oilfields. Since
2003, the Delta has become a virtual war zone as heavily armed rival
gangs - with names such as the Black Axes and Vikings - battle for access
to pipelines and demand a bigger cut of the petrodollar.
Oil theft, known as "bunkering,"
costs Nigeria some $4bn (£2.05bn) a year, while foreign companies
have been forced to scale back production after kidnappings by Delta
militants. Such uncertainties help send world oil prices sky-high.
The Pentagon's new Africa
policy is to include a "substantial" humanitarian component,
aimed partly at minimizing unrest and crime. But the reality is that
a bullish China is willing to offer billions in soft loans and infrastructure
projects - all with no strings attached - to secure lucrative acreage.
"It's like going back
to a Cold War era of politics where the US backs one political faction
because their political profile suits their requirements," says
Patrick Smith, editor of the newsletter Africa Confidential, widely
read in policy circles. "It's a move away from criteria of good
governance to what is diplomatically convenient."
According to Nicholas Shaxson,
author of Poisoned Wells: the Dirty Politics of African Oil, "[Africom]
comes in the context of a growing conflict with China over our oil supplies."
Africom will significantly
increase the US military presence on the continent. At present, the
US has 1,500 troops stationed in Africa, principally at its military
base in Djibouti, in the eastern horn. That could well double, according
to Pham. The US is already conducting naval exercises off the Gulf of
Guinea, in part with the intention of stopping Delta insurgents reaching
offshore oil rigs. It also plans to beef up the military capacity of
African governments to handle their dissidents, with additional "rapid-reaction"
US forces available if needed. But - echoing charges leveled at US allies
elsewhere in the "war on terror" - there are fears that the
many authoritarian governments in sub-Saharan Africa might use such
units to crack down on internal dissent.
The increased US military
presence is already apparent across the Red Sea from Iraq, where, in
concert with Ethiopia, Washington has quietly opened up another front
in its war on terror. The target: the Somalia-based Islamists whom the
Americans claim were responsible for the 1998 bombings of US embassies
in Kenya and Tanzania. Earlier this year, US special forces used air
strikes against suspected al-Qaeda militants, killing scores.
"Hundreds of terror
suspects have been held incommunicado since Ethiopia's invasion of Somalia
in December last year."
FBI interrogators have also
been dispatched to Ethiopian jails, where hundreds of terror suspects
- including Britons - have been held incommunicado since Ethiopia's
invasion of Somalia in December last year, according to Human Rights
Watch. The problem with this more confrontational approach in Africa
is apparent. "There's definitely a danger of the US [being] seen
as an imperial exploiter," says Shaxson. "The military presence
will raise hackles in certain countries - America will have to tread
Nonetheless, the Pentagon
is hoping that Africom will signal a more constructive foreign policy
in the region and a break with the past. "Politically [Africa]
is important and that's going to increase in coming years," says
Pham. "It's whether the US can sustain the initiative."
African Oil: the
22% of US crude oil imports
came from Nigeria in the first quarter of 2007
25% of US crude imports came
from Saudi Arabia in the same period
75% of the Nigerian government's
income is oil-related
800,000 Nigerian estimate
for barrels of oil lost each day through leaks, stoppages or theft by
$2.3bn cost of building Chevron's
Benguela Belize platform off the coast of Angola
Research by Jonathan Pearson
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