Africa's Oil Tycoons | The Nation


Africa's Oil Tycoons

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The government still maintains an armed base on a hill just outside Malongo's gates to coordinate with the company on security. (In addition to local hostility against the oil company, some Cabindans have been waging a separatist campaign against the government for decades, claiming they're not reaping any benefits from Angola's oil, the bulk of which is in their territory.) But the benefits of the company's relationship with the government these days go well beyond security. When I visited, ChevronTexaco officials told me that the company is working closely with the government to develop the environmental, tax and other regulations that will govern, well, ChevronTexaco. "For a long time there were no real regulations in Angola," Artur Custodio, who holds the bold title of "operational excellence champion" for ChevronTexaco, told me as he showed me around Malongo. "So the government is asking ChevronTexaco to create them." The lack of regulations is why ChevronTexaco has flares burning off the natural gas that's produced during oil extraction, and why it can routinely spill oil into the ocean--there were sixty-nine oil spills reported in just the first ten months of 2003--without any public disclosure. (The company does report spills to the government.)

Daphne Eviatar went to Angola as a Pew fellow in international journalism.

About the Author

Daphne Eviatar
Daphne Eviatar, a Brooklyn-based lawyer and journalist, is a senior reporter for The American Lawyer.

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ChevronTexaco nonetheless insists it is a good corporate citizen, and officials were eager to show me the charitable work it does in the area, along with a group of other international oil companies (most significantly the French company Total, the Italian ENI-Agip and of course the Angolan state-owned oil company, Sonangol) that own a share of the fields it operates. Together, the companies have spent about $24 million on development projects in Cabinda in the past five years. (ChevronTexaco won't reveal its profits in Angola, but the company netted a record $7.2 billion in 2003 worldwide.) "This is part of our corporate responsibility," said Feliciana Ngada, a spokesperson for ChevronTexaco. "We sit down with the government. They tell us we need a school or a health center. Then they are invited to participate in the opening ceremony." Once the project is built, it bears a large plaque with the names of its corporate sponsors. That is the end of the companies' involvement. They do not check to make sure the schools are being used or the clinics are staffed or stocked with medicine. "That's the government's responsibility," Ngada told me.

The consequences of that policy became immediately apparent on a daylong tour. As we drove north, we passed villages of broken clapboard shacks, mud-caked barefoot children and the occasional stray chicken. We stopped outside one of those villages to visit a Catholic boys' school where the companies had built a dormitory. At the end of a rugged dirt road was a one-story stucco building, freshly painted creamy white with a brick-red Spanish-tiled roof. But for 10 am on a Thursday, it was strangely quiet. I asked Padre Policarfao Futi, who runs the mission connected to the school, where all the children were. "The school is closed," he said, smiling at my surprise. "We have no teachers." Indeed, the schools in Cabinda hadn't had teachers for months. They were all on strike because they hadn't been paid by the government.

Later, we drove to see a small health clinic. Francisco de Amaral, a lanky, bearded medical technician in a white lab coat, was inside alone. Where were all the patients? I asked him. "There were some earlier," he said, "but I couldn't do anything for them. We don't have a laboratory, so I can't determine what disease they have. Usually they have symptoms of malaria. But I don't have any medicines for malaria."

The only project I saw that was functioning well was a blood bank funded by the oil companies housed in Cabinda's decrepit municipal hospital. ChevronTexaco has also committed about $11 million to supporting agricultural projects elsewhere in the country.

Of course, oil companies don't operate in Angola to provide social services. "Our responsibility is to efficiently develop resources in the country for our shareholders and our partners," ChevronTexaco's Blackwell told me. A Louisiana native with a broad, freckled face and reddish-brown hair, dressed in a Levi's shirt and bluejeans, Blackwell oozes corporate American cowboy. "There's an optimism that's capturing the whole country," he said. "We have an opportunity to capture that." To do that, ChevronTexaco has invested more than a billion dollars a year in the country for the past five years, making it one of the company's most significant investments in the world. With the latest deep-water technology giving the company access to ever more reserves of oil, Blackwell and others expect Angola to become Africa's top oil producer--surpassing Nigeria--within five to eight years.

To take advantage of the new technology, it helps to have good relations with the government. The schools and clinics in Cabinda are part of that. So are the contributions by ChevronTexaco to the Eduardo Dos Santos Foundation, ostensibly a charitable foundation run by the president that's long been rumored to be a means for pilfering oil money. More recently, the president's wife has set up a similar organization, supposedly to support disabled Angolans. ChevronTexaco contributes about $50,000 per year to the Dos Santos Foundation, and has given another $50,000 to the First Lady's foundation. Blackwell said he was unaware of any concerns about corruption.

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