Wednesday, December 14, 2005


African Oil and African Freedom

Much has been written about the potential negative impact sudden natural resource richness can have on the expansion of civil liberties, especially in the developing world. The discovery of valuable natural resources in countries without transparent and accountable governments can actually inhibit the expansion of their civil liberties for state populations. Corrupt leaders immune from removal from office due to the absence of elections or balance of power are able to maintain their positions through bribery, coercion, and abuse of national resources. The United States is working on diversifying its international oil providers network in an effort to reduce its vulnerability and exposure from more volatile suppliers in the Middle East. While I would applaud greater political and financial investment in alternative energy sources, I understand the immediate need to address American oil supply. How the United States goes about gaining access to different oil suppliers and the impact it has on the standard of living for the population’s of those supplier countries is a critically important issue.

Africa is receiving increased attention from the United States (and other energy hungry countries) in the effort to diversity oil suppliers. Among others in Africa, Nigeria, Angola, Chad, Mauritania, Sao Tome and Principe, have largely proven though under developed crude oil deposits. Most major international oil corporations maintain a presence in the oil rich states in Africa and are taking advantage of the international onus to increase and diversify oil supply. Industry giants such as Chevron, Total, Exxon Mobil, are all expanding their operations on the continent trying to get in on the ground floor of much expected oil boom in Africa.

As the United States works to expand relationships with oil producing states in Africa, government and business leaders should take a moment of pause and analyze the approach they are taking with the oil industry in Africa. There is potential for great success and equal potential for overwhelming damage in developing the oil export industry in Africa. If the United States and other countries pursuing energy ties to Africa do not take a careful approach to the expansion of the oil industry there is a chance the standard of living and quality of life for the people of Africa could be even worse than it is today. Market forces can be powerful mechanisms of change. African states with vast oil deposits require access to foreign expertise, markets, and investment. States looking to secure supplies of African oil should use their overwhelming leverage to promote economic and government reforms in order to ensure access to oil does not come at the expense of the personal freedoms of the local population.

In my last “blog Entry” I discussed an article written by an international affairs observer who said the United States needs to balance its realist objectives with its ideological conscience. I can think of no better opportunity to experiment with this philosophy than in African oil industry. Clearly the United States has a realist objective in obtaining oil from more sources. Expanding the oil industry in Africa can help fulfill this objective. However, many of the governments in these oil rich countries do not practices the tenets of good governance. So while obtaining the necessary oil may fulfill a realist objective or vital interest, it could also result in a development that is contrary to US national ideals. Providing poorly governed states with extra revenues could work to perpetuate the survival of their regime and further restrict the civil liberties and quality of life for their civilians. Corrupt leaders have shown the tendency to concentrate revenues for regime survival rather than social investment and improvement. Securing regional stability and access to oil supplies remains important for the United States. But if these conditions are met at the expense of expansion of civil liberties and democratic values, there will be a price to be paid in the future. Stability at the price of freedom is an volatile formula.

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