Africa's Oil Rush

It takes a threat to oil supplies to get world leaders to pay attention to Africa. Usually neglected by globetrotting statesmen, the continent recently saw visits from US President George W. Bush, Chinese President Hu Jintao, Brazil's Lula Da Silva, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and many other world leaders. Their public comments were typically devoted to development, ending Africa's many wars, and the fight against HIV/AIDS, but all of them had oil on their minds.

An oil rush is underway in the continent, because all developed countries' national security depends on a steady oil supply, and sub-Saharan Africa owns 8% of the world's known reserves. In 2002 production was 2.1 million barrels a day in Nigeria, 900,000 in Angola, 283,000 in Congo Brazzaville, 265,000 in Equatorial Guinea, 247,000 in Gabon, 227,000 in Sudan, 75,000 in Cameroon, 28,000 in South Africa, 25,000 in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and 11,000 in Ivory Coast.

The US alone imports 1.5 million barrels a day from West Africa, the same amount it imports from Saudi Arabia. According to the US Energy Department, within this decade American oil imports from Africa will reach 770 millions barrels annually, as exploration intensifies throughout the Gulf of Guinea, and as the US brokers peace in war-ravaged oil-producing countries, such as Sudan and Angola, and establishes strategic bases to safeguard output. As a result, West African oil producers will be earning an estimated $200 billion over the next decade, more than 10 times the sum Western countries allocate each year to the "aid industry" in the region.

So why aren't Africans celebrating? Because they are well aware of the "curse of oil" - corruption, conflict, ecological disaster, and anaesthetized entrepreneurial spirit. In Nigeria, an estimated $300 billion in oil revenues entered the government's coffers over the past 25 years, but per capita income remains less than one dollar a day for the simple reason that much of the money ends up in Swiss bank accounts, like the one owned by the late dictator Sani Abacha.