Ian Garrick Mason

Articles and Essays

San Francisco Chronicle -- September 19, 2004

A growing source for oil is also a target

West Africa, a big exporter to the U.S., demonstrates the 'paradox of plenty'.

by Ian Garrick Mason

For some West African states, the age of oil has arrived. Already, the region provides 14 percent of U.S. oil imports, a proportion that experts predict could reach 20 percent within a decade. Nigeria alone is the fifth-largest exporter of oil to the United States, ranking in importance just behind Venezuela and Saudi Arabia. Angola is the ninth largest.

With oil futures now surpassing $49 a barrel -- driven by Middle East security concerns, rising demand and anticipated supply disruptions in Russia -- it would be logical to conclude that for these heretofore impoverished countries, oil offers tremendous potential for economic and social development.

But while sought-after commodities like oil can generate immense revenues for an exporting nation, they can also end up inflicting great damage on its economy and political culture. West African nations now face a further challenge, as oil -- among other factors -- drags them deeper into America's global war on terrorism.

The first risk is depressingly familiar by now. Usually called "the paradox of plenty," or, more recently, "the resource curse," it is based on a dynamic of easy money and political corruption. This is the route by which riches are transformed into poverty and corruption.

Though Nigeria's first oil boom occurred back in the 1970s, its annual gross domestic product per capita has fallen from $800 in 1980 to $300 today - - and this despite earning $340 billion from its oil over the past 40 years.

If testimony given in July to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is anything to go by, such dangers are well recognized: All experts stressed the importance of financial transparency, good governance and stability. The World Bank's World Development Report for 2003 acknowledges the problem and points out that "the question of whether oil and minerals hinder the emergence of democratic institutions has been tested empirically and found to hold for a panel of 113 countries between 1971 and 1997." Even the big Western oil companies have started trying to make more transparent deals with local governments -- although with mixed success so far.

If combined with action, this awareness will hopefully shorten the odds West African nations will manage to avoid the resource curse.

Unfortunately, American concerns over a possible terrorist presence there may end up lengthening those same odds. Already, alarm bells are being rung: A Washington Post commentary described the region as "a haven for al Qaeda and other terrorist groups," and pointed to the now familiar recipe of "failed states" containing large Muslim populations.

Gen. Charles Wald, deputy commander of EUCOM (the military command responsible for Europe and western Africa), recently completed a tour of several West African states, including a stop at Nigeria, where he discussed U. S. military involvement in securing the Gulf of Guinea and its resources. When asked whether cooperation would include the protection of Nigerian oil infrastructure, he replied, "Wherever there's evil, we want to get there and fight it." As Wald told attendees of a Joint Civilian Orientation Conference on June 16, "We have a huge interest in Africa from a security standpoint, from a strategic standpoint and from the standpoint of protecting our security interests and investment interests."

U.S. fears are not groundless -- various reporters have pointed to links between al Qaeda and diamond smuggling in former President Charles Taylor's Liberia, and it's not unreasonable to worry that oil may present a similarly tempting source of wealth for criminal groups.

But in prosecuting a global war against a foe that ignores state boundaries, the United States has come to use tools that inherently undercut democratic sovereignty in the countries where it fights. The permissions, local bases and logistical support that the Pentagon requires for surveillance and "snatch" operations (in which suspected terrorists are abducted from a country by U.S. special forces and taken to Guantanamo Bay in Cuba or other, more secret, prisons), for example, would be difficult for a democratic government to provide, and are therefore best secured via quiet agreements with governments beholden more to the United States than to potentially anti-American publics.

The U.S.-aligned government of Uzbekistan is a perfect example of the compromises required by an overemphasis on security. Though acknowledged by the State Department as being undemocratic and a place where "the police force and the intelligence service use torture as a routine investigation technique", the regime of Islam Karimov has enjoyed a close relationship with the United States ever since allowing U.S. forces to use the country as a base for operations in neighboring Afghanistan -- even signing a Declaration of Strategic Partnership in 2002.

As a State Department backgrounder puts it, Karimov's Uzbekistan is "a stable, moderate force in a turbulent region." Or, as Franklin D. Roosevelt is alleged to have said of Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza (and as others later did say of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet), "He may be a son of a bitch, but at least he's our son of a bitch."

This is ironic, to say the least. The most optimistic rationale advanced for the Iraq war was that forcibly installing a democracy there might start a reverse domino effect that would ultimately overthrow the autocratic Middle Eastern governments that ill-serve their people and foster terrorism. Yet U.S.- supported autocracies like Uzbekistan and Pakistan show this rationale to be a mirage. The iron rule remains in effect: Better the dictator you know than the democrat you don't.

But in West Africa, the United States finds itself with a fresh chance to do the right thing. It can give those countries a fighting chance to avoid the paradox of plenty and to use their wealth to evolve into law-governed democracies. Or it can give in to the temptation to promote a "stability" that freezes corrupt and repressive governments in place, for the sake of some tactical and ultimately temporary victories in the war on terrorism.

In the long run, though, the last thing American foreign policy needs is more sons of bitches.