“We’ve found in excess of 500 million barrels of oil here, and we expect that to grow to at least 1 billion–and that’s not to say that we won’t find more. This is one of the hottest spots in the world right now.” The speaker is Jim Musselman, head of Triton Energy, and the spot he’s talking about is Equatorial Guinea, a tiny nation located on the west coast of Africa. We’re sitting in the front room of his comfortably appointed government villa in the capital city of Malabo, and though it’s blistering hot outside, the villa’s interior is pleasantly cool. It’s one of dozens that the government, flush with oil revenues, has built for visiting foreign dignitaries and businessmen, and that sit inside a walled compound guarded by soldiers posted in towers spaced alongside the perimeter.
Equatorial Guinea has long been one of the poorest and most neglected nations on the planet, but within a few years the country could be producing as much as 500,000 barrels a day–one per capita–which would make it sub-Saharan Africa’s third-largest producer behind Nigeria and Angola. Thanks to oil, Equatorial Guinea’s economy is projected to grow by 34 percent this year, more than twice the rate of any other nation’s. It is also thanks to oil that under George Bush there’s been a slow but steady blossoming of relations between the United States, which buys almost two-thirds of Equatorial Guinea’s petroleum, and the government of Brig. Gen. Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, who took power in a coup in 1979.
Musselman, an affable, balding man wearing a blue dress shirt and cowboy boots embossed with his initials, describes himself as “an unabashed fan” of Equatorial Guinea, and it’s easy to see why. Dallas-based Triton was founded by William Lee, who ran the firm until 1993, when Triton was accused (and later convicted) of bribing Indonesian government officials. Musselman took charge five years later, after putting together a $350 million rescue package, but Triton was still floundering until it made a big oil strike here in 1999. Largely due to its Equatorial Guinea stake, Triton was recently purchased by oil giant Amerada Hess, and Musselman is here with that company’s chairman, John Hess, for meetings with Obiang.
What makes Equatorial Guinea especially important today, Musselman says, is political turmoil in the Persian Gulf and other regions from which the United States imports petroleum. “There is plenty of instability in the world, and the more diverse supplies of oil we have, the better off things are,” he says. “Knock on wood, this country is stable and the president is sincerely trying to improve things. It’s not going to turn into suburban Washington, but it could be a model for this part of the world.”
With its newfound oil wealth and tiny population, Equatorial Guinea could indeed be a model in a region known for dictatorial rule and gross corruption. But that prospect seems unlikely given that the Obiang regime is generally considered to rank among the world’s worst–an assessment shared not only by human rights groups but also the CIA. The agency’s current World Factbook says that America’s new strategic partner is a country “ruled by ruthless leaders who have badly mismanaged the economy.” From outside the villa walls, it’s easy to see how the CIA reached that conclusion.
Bringing the Oil Home
During the cold war, the United States viewed Africa as a major battleground with the Soviet Union and poured billions of dollars of economic and military aid into the continent. After the collapse of Communism, though, American interest waned. As recently as 1995, a Pentagon report concluded that the United States had “very little traditional strategic interests in Africa.” But during the past few years, Africa has become a growing source of American oil imports–especially West Africa, which in oil parlance is considered to include Angola as well as Nigeria, Congo Republic, Gabon, Cameroon and now Equatorial Guinea. The United States already buys 15 percent of its oil from West Africa–nearly as much as comes from Saudi Arabia–a figure expected to grow to 20 percent within the next five years and, according to the National Intelligence Council, to as high as 25 percent by 2015.