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U.S. Oil Politics in the 'Kuwait of Africa' | The Nation

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U.S. Oil Politics in the 'Kuwait of Africa'

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"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.

This article was prepared with a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism, with additional support from the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute.

About the Author

Ken Silverstein
Ken Silverstein is a Washington, DC–based investigative reporter.

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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.

The Bush Administration's national energy policy, released last May, predicted that West Africa would become "one of the fastest-growing sources of oil and gas for the American market." The year before, Paul Michael Wihbey of Washington's Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies described West Africa as "an area of vital US interest" in testimony before Congress. He proposed the creation of a new South Atlantic Military Command that would "permit the US Navy and armed forces to more easily project power to defend American interests and allies in West Africa." The September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon further heightened American attention to Africa, with national security planners urging that the United States seek to diversify supplies of oil away from the Middle East.

There's been virtually no public discussion or debate about America's growing appetite for West African oil, though it has significant economic, military and geopolitical implications. While these countries are not Islamic regimes--a fact frequently emphasized by American strategists--US allies in West Africa are not especially attractive. In Angola, petroleum revenues have allowed the government of José Eduardo dos Santos to build a vast military and internal security apparatus. Other than oil, Angola produces little besides artificial limbs for war victims, but dos Santos has become by some estimates one of the world's fifty richest people. Nigeria, though it formally made the transition from military dictatorship to democratic rule in 1999, is also a disaster. The army has committed several massacres of civilians since President Olusegun Obasanjo took power, and a parliamentary report recently accused his administration of corruption and ineptitude. "The Middle East presents a number of problems, but most West African regimes are neither stable nor democratic," says Terry Karl, a professor of political science at Stanford University and author of The Paradox of Plenty: Oil Booms and Petro-States. "Oil development in that context is likely to buffer authoritarian rule and foster corruption, instability and environmental destruction."

None of this has dimmed West Africa's allure in foreign policy circles. In January the Council on Foreign Relations hosted an event on the growing importance of Africa ("America's Response to Terrorism: Managing Africa's Oil Revenues in a Changing Global Climate"), and Wihbey's institute held a similar affair. The latter, at downtown Washington's tony University Club, was attended by oil company executives, Bush Administration officials, corporate lobbyists and representatives from a number of African embassies, including Teodoro Biyogo Nsue, Equatorial Guinea's ambassador to the United States (and General Obiang's brother-in-law). Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Walter Kansteiner gave the introductory talk, which had the vague ring of a revival meeting sermon. "African oil is a national strategic interest," he told the crowd. "It's people like you who will...bring the oil home." Other speakers included Lieut. Col. Karen Kwiatkowski, an Air Force officer assigned to the Defense Secretary's office, who said the United States needs to step up military training for African oil producers so that those countries can "secure their property, their investment and our investment."

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