U.S. Cries for African Oil

June 30, 2008

Americans spend so much time fixated on oil in the Middle East that they generally pay little or no attention to sub-Saharan Africa, which supplies almost as much black gold to the U.S. as the Persian Gulf States. It’s also a region with just as much (if not more) danger of unexpected supply disruption. That’s largely what drove the establishment of AFRICOM, the new U.S. military administrative headquarters (one of six regional HQs worldwide) devoted solely to military relations with 53 African countries.

To put the region in perspective, sub-Saharan Africa accounted for nearly 16% of U.S. daily oil imports in 2007, versus just under 18% for the Persian Gulf States and just over 18% for Canada according to the U.S. Department of Energy. On an individual country basis, here are our top five foreign suppliers and our daily purchases in thousands of barrels:

Canada 2243
Saudi Arabia 1487
Venezuela 1336
Mexico 1258
Nigeria 1131

Angola, with 507,000 barrels daily, ranks seventh, just behind Algeria. Chad, Gabon, Congo (Brazzaville), and Equatorial Guinea are petroleum suppliers to the U.S. as well, along with minor players including South Africa, Mauritania, Ivory Coast, Ghana, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (Kinshasa).

Nigeria is particularly vulnerable to disruption. Rebel groups opposed to President Umaru Yar’Adua have repeatedly destroyed oil pumping stations, pipelines, and other distribution facilities. The bold Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta has sent militants in boats through heavy seas to attack the Bonga oil field more than 65 miles from land, temporarily shutting production of more than 200,000 barrels per day.

It is not just rebel groups that threaten the Nigerian supply, either. White-collar oil workers threatened to strike after talks between U.S. energy giant Chevron Corp. and the country’s white-collar oil industry workers broke down recently. A walkout was averted, but the issues remain.

The other major situation the U.S. faces with its African oil supply is competition, especially from China. The Angolans supplied almost as much oil (465,000 barrels daily) to China as they did to the U.S. in 2007. That number will almost certainly go up. The Council on Foreign Relations points out

Beijing secured a major stake in future oil production in 2004 with a $2 billion package of loans and aid that includes funds for Chinese companies to build railroads, schools, roads, hospitals, bridges, and offices; lay a fiber-optic network; and train Angolan telecommunications workers.

Angolan President José Eduardo dos Santos received his degree from the Azerbaijan Oil and Chemistry Institute in the old USSR and served as his party’s (MPLA) representative to China shortly before becoming President. The U.S. has been able to deal with him, but he’s no particular friend. After his 29 years in office during which Angola has sunk to one of the world’s poorest and least-developed countries despite almost limitless oil, diamonds, and other resources, there’s no guarantee that the situation in the country will remain stable enough to assure the U.S. of continued supply.

With two of the top seven U.S. oil suppliers vulnerable to supply disruptions at any moment, is it any wonder that the American military presence in Africa is slated for the major expansion?

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds

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Good Intentions Aren’t Enough in Africa

June 28, 2008

One of the most persistent problems faced by those trying to bring essential services to developing countries is illustrated by a story I read recently on Sociolingo’s Africa. Here’s a brief excerpt:

I guess I have been around long enough that I am rarely really shocked. However, a story on IPS News from Malawi caught my eye, and yes – I admit it – I am shocked. Read the following:

LILONGWE, Jun 27 (IPS) – Gladys Mawera’s face is contorted with pain -– both she and her newborn baby survived a complicated birth three days ago — but she has not been able to take the painkillers and antibiotics prescribed to her by the medical personnel at the Chiradzulu District Hospital in southern Malawi. The hospital has been without water for five days.

“I am disgusted with my own smell and that of my baby,” says Mawera, who is still wrapped in bloodstained linens as she cradles her child. “There is literally not a drop of water around here,” worries Mawera.

That last line in the highlighted paragraph does it for me. As you read on in the article your mouth drops further and further.

This is not some rustic hospital in the back of beyond. This is a state of the art modern hospital built in 2005 at a cost of 25 million dollars European Union funding which is trying to exist with highly erratic water supplies. In this state of the art hospital, x-rays services are suspended, operations are suspended, patients do not even have water to drink, nurses and doctors do not have water to wash in, linen cannot be washed. How can the hospital function?

It’s all about infrastructure–or the lack thereof–which is essential to building modern societies.

Before modern agricultural methods can be used to compete on world markets, all-weather roads and railroads must exist to take the commodities to market. Before manufacturing plants can operate and provide high-paying jobs, reliable electric power must be available. Before first-class health care can be provided, the hospital must have a plentiful supply of clean water, as this story shows.

We in the West take great pride in projects like the recently-announced $211 million (US) initiative to conserve rainforests in the Congo Basin through the use of advanced satellite camera technology and community-based conservation projects. Personally, I’d rather see the governments of Britain and Norway (who are funding the project), put that money into water towers and pumping stations, concrete roadways, and hydro-electric plants. Global warming is an important issue and there are no easy answers, but the people of Africa will never achieve their full potential until resources are committed to the building blocks of modern society.

Goodbye, Zimbabwe

June 23, 2008

Bang the drum slowly, it’s all over but the hand-wringing in Zimbabwe. Morgan Tsvangirai’s withdrawl from the Presidential run-off election means that Robert Mugabe has officially won, ensuring that his party, the Zimbabwe African National Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) will remain in power for the foreseeable future. It’s a big blow for democracy in Africa, not to mention another big nail in the coffin of what was once a beautiful, prosperous nation.

In a face-saving gesture, Tsvangirai will call (again) for a unity government. His plea will be echoed by the US, Britain, and perhaps one or two regional nations. The man and his party have no leverage, however, so Mugabe will certainly refuse to even consider the “demand” that he give up any power.

Mugabe had already announced he wouldn’t recognize the results of the election if he lost, why should he give in now?

There is no organized opposition to the Old Man in Zimbabwe, as the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC)’s failure to nominate a viable candidate proved. What about Tsvangirai? With all due respect to his bravery in both mounting a campaign and then having the decency to call it off before more bloodshed occurs, he was never a strong opponent. His past failures to pull his party together, previous half-hearted attempts to force a unity government on Mugabe, and apparent inability to rally the leaders of regional states around his cause have to be seen as contributing factors to his defeat.

While there is no question that ZANU-PF’s brutality destroyed the democratic process, Tsvangirai’s weak candidacy was doomed to failure from the start. Until MDC finds a leader–or another opposition party emerges (a highly unlikely prospect)–Mugabe and whoever succeeds him as the head of ZANU-PF (even the Old Man won’t live forever, but his power base might) will continue to rule Zimbabwe.

Is there anyone else who can bring about change? Not really. Simba Makoni, a senior member of ZANU-PF until he was expelled and a one-time Minister of Finance, staged a campaign in the first election, but I suspect he was allowed to run simply to split the opposition vote, which he did. Arthur Mutambara, a leader of an MDC faction opposed to Tsvangirai, threw his support to Makoni not long after he announced his candidacy. The result was that Makoni essentially became Zimbabwe’s Ralph Nader, garnering just enough votes (8.3%) to ensure no clear victory for MDC.

There won’t be any outside intervention, either, regardless of how loudly the New York Times and the rest of the Western press bang that drum. Any action by the UN Security Council will be blocked by South Africa. The US and Britain are in no position to start any other foreign wars–and who appointed them Africa’s savior anyway? Any action whatsoever by the West will simply play into Mugabe’s claim that his opponents are no more than pawns of the colonialists, further inflaming his club-wielding supporters.

Nor will the regional states step in, even though they have the most to lose as Zimbabwe continues to sink into oblivion and its people flood over their borders looking for new lives. South Africa’s President Thabo Mbeki has done little more than jawbone around the situation, obviously reluctant to undercut his ally, Mugabe. Levy Patrick Mwanawasa of Zambia and Botswana President Seretse Ian Khama have spoken harshly, but that’s about all they can do without the heft of South Africa behind them.

What does the future hold for Zimbabwe? Much, much more of the same. Harsher Western economic sanctions will take the remaining scraps of food off the tables of the poor but mean little or nothing to the “Big Men” at the top of the heap. Food aid will resume, but be distributed (one way or the other) by Mugabe’s men only to those who support the party. Eventually, Chinese arms shipments will resume.

The West will cry and protest, but the people of Zimbabwe will die in silence.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds

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The Disappearing Congo Forest

June 17, 2008

The African Ministerial Conference on the Environment recently presented Africa: Atlas of Our Changing Environment, a study that features over 300 satellite images taken in every country in Africa in over 100 locations. The ‘before’ and ‘after’ photographs, some of which span a 35-year period, offer striking snapshots of local environmental transformation across the continent. It chronicles how development choices, population growth, climate change and, in some cases, conflicts are impacting the natural assets of the region.

Here are two views of the region around Bumba in the Nord-Ubangi and Mongala provinces of the DRC. The first is from 1975. You can see the pattern of deforestation concentrated along the local roads as loops of light green through the otherwise dense rain forest.

In the next image, taken in 2003, these deforested corridors have widened considerably, almost joining in many places.

Most of this deforestation is the result of agricultural conversion, fuelwood collection, settlement, and artisanal logging. Networks of logging roads can also be seen within two of the patches of largely intact forest in the lower right corner of the 2003 image. Full size high resolution images are available at UNEP Atlas of our Changing Environment.

The report says
While industrial logging has had a relatively small impact in the DRC in the past, it has recently become the most extensive form of land use in Central Africa. More than half of the area visible in these images is under logging concession. The selective logging practised by commercial logging companies has been shown to have long-lasting impacts on forest composition. Logging roads have been shown to significantly increase bushmeat hunting.

In addition to local and logging roads, a recent study for the World Bank suggests the road from Bangui, CAR, to Kisangani, DRC, be improved as part of a continental road network. The study shows that the network would increase trade on this route enormously. It also acknowledges concern that parts of the road network that would experience the greatest increase in trade correspond to areas with the highest biodiversity.

It’s also interesting to note that the relative peace in this part of the country has enabled the commercial development that’s causing this deforestation.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds

When Police Are Criminals

June 15, 2008

Which is worse, the cure or the disease? The police or the criminals? One of the themes of Heart of Diamonds is how the good guys aren’t always what they seem, nor are the righteous rebels always on the side of the angels.

While most eyes are on the eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo, unrest continues in the west. Bundu Dia Kongo (BDK) has been agitating and fighting for independence since 1969 in the Bas Congo province. The group’s motto, “To fight for the defence, the protection and the promotion of the rights and interest of the Kongo people throughout the world,” reflects their intentions.

Since October, 2007, tensions have flared between BDK and the local authorities in several Bas Congo cities and villages, with a very real threat of loss of governmental control over several locations. At the end of February, 2008, the DRC government launched police operations to restore state authority in the province. The Rapid Intervention Force and the Integrated Police Unit were sent from Kinshasa to respond to BDK actions, which included murder, attacks and the taking over of state authority in certain areas the province.

A UN investigation concluded that at least 100 people, mainly BDK members, were killed during the operations launched by the Congolese National Police (PNC). The PNC went beyond their mandate to restore order, however, destroying more than 200 buildings (churches, houses of BDK members as well as houses of civilians with no links to the BDK) in several Bas Congo villages. There was looting reported as well.

More than 150 BDK members were arrested during the violence, and several of them were victims of torture or cruel and degrading treatment, according to the UN report.

Does BDK have a righteous cause? It’s rather hard to justify given that it’s based on a kingdom that hasn’t effectively existed for probably two hundred years. On the other hand, was the PNC justified in destroying not just the rebels but the homes and churches of civilians as well? It seems to me that everyone involved is morally wrong in this situation–not unusual in the Congo.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds

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Abuse On Angola-Congo Border

June 13, 2008

A new wave of deportees has arrived in Kasai Occidental province in the Democratic Republic of Congo (the setting for Heart of Diamonds) from the diamond mining region in Angola. Most of the women among the 27,000 people expelled by the Angolans have been sexually abused, according to local health officials.

“There are many injured people and 80 percent of the women had been raped,” according to Pierre Didi Mpata, a doctor and director of an NGO running a local health center in Kamako, a village near the Congolese border with Angola not far from Mai-Munene where much of the story in Heart of Diamonds takes place. Some 5,000 refuges now crowd Kamako. The UN mission in DRC, MONUC, reports 22,230 more DRC citizens were sent back from Angola in the last two weeks. They are now between Kahungua and Tembo, some 95 kilometers from the Angolan border.

Mpata was quoted in a UN Integrated Regional Information Network (IRIN) report that among the people who had been sexually abused was Caroline Lomelo (not her real name), a mother of two.

“I was badly beaten up and raped by five Angolan police officers when they forcefully expelled us,” she said. Lomelo returned to the DRC five days ago from Angola. According to Mpata, Lomelo can barely stand because she has a sexually transmitted infection. She is also six months pregnant.

“She is in danger of having an abortion because of the [gonorrhoea] infection she contracted,” Mpata said.

Lomelo, who was training to be a nurse, said she had gone to Angola from her home town of Lodja, in the central province of Kasai Oriental, to look for her brother.

The Angolan authorities began to expel illegal immigrants from the country in December 2003, targeting illegal workers in its diamond mines near the border with the DRC. Previous mass expulsions in the area had been halted by an agreement between the two countries. In December 2007, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) denounced “the pervasive and systematic use of rape and violence perpetrated by the Angolan army during the expulsions of Congolese migrants working in diamond mines in the Angolan province of Lunda Norte”.

The current wave of expelled immigrants have nothing and are exhausted after walking at least 100 kilometers from Angola where they were living in churches and schools where supplies of basic items were inadequate. “It’s a miracle they survived,” Mpata said.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds

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Democracy, Profits, and Good Corporate Citizens

June 11, 2008

I read an interesting interview with Neville Isdell, CEO of Coca-Cola, on allAfrica.com.  He sheds light on why some countries on the continent have growing economies while others languish, as well as the role of democracy in economic development.  Here’s a brief excerpt:

…we have been having good growth in South Africa but if you take the rest of Africa, there is good growth coming out of the likes of Tanzania, out of Egypt, out of Ghana. I’ll just take those three – you’ve got east, west and north – and in all of those countries you’ve got economies that are growing. And they are growing because of good economic policies and sound government. We’re not growing as well… [in] areas where the structures and the governmental policies are more restrictive.

Is there a correlation in your experience between democracy and good governance? Have you had growth in oppressive societies?

Oppressive societies – that is always a problem. You don’t get good growth out of those. Where you have a deficit of democracy as defined today by Western elites, you can still have very good growth because they’re putting in place sound policies. Not just economic policies – educating their people, having good rule of law, building infrastructure.

I think the real qualifier for democracy to be not just a vote once, but really to take root is a functioning middle class. That is the democratic stabilizer. There’s a little bit of a chicken-and-egg situation here. You do not get a functioning middle class unless you have got a growing economy, unless you’ve got the right economic policies, and those can be put in by governments which don’t meet the current Western democratic norm.

As a former entrepreneur, I found this interview quite encouraging. I agree strongly with Isdell’s comments about the impact of stable, non-oppressive societies on economic growth. Companies of all sizes and nationalities, from the street hustler to the mega-multinational, look for places where they can see a future, where they can feel confident that the investment they make today will pay off not just once but over and over again. For that to happen, there needs to be infrastructure as he defines it–not just roads and rail but education, health care, and civil stability. There also needs to be a rule of law (not rule BY law, which is little more than governance by fiat) and an objective, independent judicial system to enforce individual rights. Keep in mind that a corporation is a “person” in most legal systems, which makes enforcement of individual rights a concern of businesses, too.

I also agree with him that democratic government as usually defined in the West isn’t necessarily the be-all and end-all for crating stable, well-functioning societies. Elections are good, but not an end in themselves. Enforcement of the rights of free expression, respect for the person and property of the individual, the ability to make personal choices about work, travel, lifestyles, etc., can all happen in societies governed by non-Western methods.

I’m sure Isdell would agree that the profit motive per se is neither good or bad. It is the character of the people pursuing it that determines whether a company is a good citizen or not. When they are good people, great good can come from their long-term investment in underdeveloped economies. Companies like Coca Cola, General Electric, and many of the other mega-multinationals are closely governed by many forces–their shareholders, U.S. and other government regulation, the stock markets–as well as their very high public profile. It behooves them to be clean operators, to do good when they can, and to avoid morally-repugnant behavior. It is the quick-buck artists who give foreign investment a bad name, not large, stable corporations looking to build future value for their shareholders.
Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds