Will Human Rights Survive Africa’s Latest Oil Boom?

Who says that Francophone Africa can’t thrive? The Central African Economic and Monetary Union (CEMAC), with six countries and an estimated 30 million people, is taking off. Equatorial Guinea and Chad, now the CEMAC’s leading lights, have risen out of oblivion into the top ranks of oil exporters. Add to them the two old regulars, Congo and Cameroon, and the CEMAC zone shapes up as an increasingly attractive market for foreign investors and local businesses alike. But will rapid development exact an excessively high toll on human rights?

The region’s economic stature was bolstered in 2003 with the advent of the Chad-Cameroon oil pipeline, a $4.2 billion project brokered by the World Bank that is expected to boost exploration and output in Chad and at offshore sites in Equatorial Guinea, while spreading the benefits more widely. For example, with the pipeline crossing 890 kilometers of its territory, Cameroon will net $540 million annually in fees and royalties for the next 25 to 30 years.

All of this was made possible by what has been, by historical standards, an exceptional period of political stability. Oil was discovered in Chad’s southern Doba region in 1975, with 300 wells drilled so far. But none of the reserves could be exploited until 1988, when Chad’s protracted civil war finally ended.

With the subsequent oil boom, one would have expected the fortunes of Chadians and Cameroonians to improve at the individual, local, and national levels. But instead we see a landscape of widespread poverty set against a backdrop of endemic corruption and official mismanagement. So far, the governments in neither Chad nor Cameroon have been willing to publish any earnings records concerning the pipeline project.