A Huge Victory for Global Justice

A Huge Victory for Global Justice

With a new SEC regulation, no longer will big oil and mining companies be able to hide under-the-table payments to crooked Third World governments.


Normally, the courageous democratic movement in the West African dictatorship of Equatorial Guinea does not pay attention to the activities of the US Securities and Exchange Commission. But a recent landmark SEC decision will have prompted discreet but enthusiastic celebrations in the opposition’s headquarters, a simple white frame building in the ramshackle Equatoguinean capital.

On August 22, the SEC issued regulations that will force oil, gas and mining companies that are listed on US stock exchanges to publish what they pay to foreign governments. The new regulations will finally enforce an anti-corruption section of the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform law, known as the Cardin-Lugar amendment, which requires some 1,100 resource companies to break down their payments and report them in revealing detail. In the more than two years since the law passed, Big Oil lobbyists tried ferociously—and failed—to water down the new transparency regulations.

The SEC decision is the biggest single victory in many years for poor people across the Third World. No longer will the big oil and mining companies be able to hide their under-the-table payments to crooked governments in Africa, Latin America and Asia. Over the past twenty years, new independent civic organizations have sprung up all over the poorer parts of the planet, alongside vigorous community radio stations, opposition publications and websites. In the years and decades to come, ordinary people will be intrigued to learn exactly how much the oil giants like Exxon and Shell and big mining companies such as Freeport-McMoRan and BHP Billiton are paying their governments. They can then contrast the billions of dollars in royalties and taxes with the potholed dirt roads, decrepit hospitals and overcrowded schools that they see around them.

The successful fight for openness took ten long years. The Publish What You Pay coalition grew to include more than 600 individual groups, with national affiliated campaigns in thirty-one different countries. In the United States, key organizations also included the Revenue Watch Institute, Oxfam America and Global Witness. The tremendous victory is boosting a similar measure in Europe; proponents hope to bring a similar transparency measure to a vote in the European Parliament before the end of this year.

Excitement over the SEC decision will not be confined to Malabo, the steamy capital of Equatorial Guinea. In Angola, where the oil giants have transferred vast wealth to the one-time Marxist elite but left the vast majority of the people in poverty, a growing opposition will also celebrate. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, members of the outspoken Journalists’ Association whom I met recently in Fungurume, near the $2 billion Freeport-McMoRan copper mine, will have more specific information for their reports. Cambodians for Resource Revenue Transparency will be able to keep closer watch on Chevron, Total and ConocoPhillips. In East Africa, the distinguished journalist Charles Onyango-Obbo is probably licking his chops at another chance to scrutinize his old nemesis, the Museveni regime in Uganda, where sizable oil reserves have recently been discovered.

Publish What You Pay is vital because for the foreseeable future, the only way a large number of Third World nations will be able to grow is by exporting oil and minerals. The rise of Sweatshop China has meant that diversification into manufacturing is only a dream for most countries in Africa, and for many others elsewhere. Many of the poor nations have to rely on agricultural exports like cocoa, cotton and sugar, but their prices tend to stay low over time, and hypocritical protectionist policies in the rich world also limit how much they can earn.

By contrast, world oil and mineral prices have been high recently, due primarily to growing demand from China. Oil was recently discovered off the Ghana coast, and there is also an oil and gas boom in East Africa. The growing number of nations with extractive industries should be enjoying a broad-based bonanza—which is much needed because Oxfam America estimates that more than 1.5 billion people struggle to live on less than $2 a day in the resource-rich countries.

But corruption thrives because the industries are so concentrated. The oil and mining corporations sign secret deals with presidents and their cronies; bring in their own, relatively small workforces (which are sometimes stationed on offshore rigs); and shun any kind of publicity.

Let’s look at Equatorial Guinea more closely. The oil giants pump nearly $14 billion a year out of the country, with Exxon accounting for close to 40 percent. Despite a recent decline in that percentage, it is still the largest single producer. This works out to about $19,000 annually for each of the small country’s 720,000 inhabitants, so Equatorial Guinea should be on its way to becoming a West African Kuwait. In fact, the only people who are prospering are part of the forty-four-year-old family dictatorship, headed by Teodoro Obiang Nguema, whose ubiquitous portraits all over the country show him as a pleasant, bespectacled grandfather, not the torturing lieutenant general he actually is.

During my two-week visit there a couple of years ago, I learned immediately that most of the country was still just as poor as the rest of the continent. Marcial Abaga Barril, a brave young opposition figure who told me to use his real name, explained: “In the Fiston neighborhood, where my family lives, we have no electricity. We have no piped water; we have to get it from the river nearby. Our schools have forty to fifty students in each class, with no desks, not enough teachers, not enough teaching materials.”

For years, the Obiang family’s corruption went unnoticed by both Western governments and the mainstream media. Over the past few years, Obiang’s playboy son, Teodoro Obiang Mangue, has finally come under legal scrutiny in both France and the United States. Obiang Junior has used both countries to stash some of his alleged loot, including a $180 million mansion in Paris and another luxury home in Malibu, California.

Western media have for generations slanted its coverage of corruption in the Third World, concentrating on corrupt officials in the poor countries while ignoring the big oil and mining companies (and others) that actually pay them. Just the other day, the New York Times was characteristically squeamish about even mentioning the Obiang family’s senior partner. A Times story on Obiang Junior’s court cases found room to name some of the luxury cars he owns in France (“an Aston Martin; a Ferrari Enzo…”), but the word “ExxonMobil” did not appear in the article a single time.

Big Oil’s lobbyists fought the new transparency legislation, delaying the new regulations a full sixteen months beyond the deadline Congress had imposed back in 2010. Oxfam America even had to bring a lawsuit earlier this year to force the SEC to finally release the regulations.

Shell, Exxon and their mouthpiece, the American Petroleum Institute, used several maneuvers to try to pull the new law’s teeth. One of the most amusing was Big Oil’s insistence that it should not have to disclose its payments to Third World countries that forbid the release of such financial data. Publish What You Pay campaigners did some research and discovered that not a single country anywhere actually had such a law on its books. (Of course, if the SEC had been foolish enough to approve what the pro-transparency campaigners called “the tyrant’s veto,” the Obiang family’s normally sleepy rubber-stamp legislature would have sprung into action.)

Big Oil also whined that Publishing What You Pay would cost too much in data collection. This is absurd; a company as well organized as Exxon, which apparently had no trouble keeping track of its $41 billion in profits in 2011, should be able to punch numbers into its super-computers and show in nano-seconds how much it paid, and to whom. Statoil, the Norwegian oil company, and the US-based Newmont Mining already voluntarily comply with the disclosure requirements, and neither is going out of business.

(The SEC also issued new regulation on the same day for another, somewhat related provision of Dodd-Frank: Section 1502, the so-called “conflict minerals” amendment. Section 1502, which is aimed at ending the fighting in eastern DR Congo, requires US-listed public companies to trace back to the source certain minerals they acquire from Congo. Some activists, both Congolese and others, have raised serious doubts about Section 1502, arguing that the measure, however well-intentioned, does not address the main causes of violence in the region and also may end up inadvertently hurting several hundred thousand artisanal miners who are trying to eke out a living.)

Publish What You Pay is a huge victory, but only a first step. The sad experience in the landlocked, poor Sahelian nation of Chad over the past decade or so demonstrates the dangers ahead. After oil was discovered in Chad in 1996, the dictator, Idriss Déby, invited an Exxon-led partnership to build a 660-mile pipeline from the Atlantic coast to exploit it. Exxon persuaded the World Bank to help underwrite the venture with a loan, in order to provide cover for its dealings with the dictator. Human rights groups all over the globe noisily protested, but the World Bank insisted it had a solid agreement with Déby that 80 percent of the earnings from oil would be spent directly on the Chadian people, for education, health and rural development.

The oil started flowing in 2003. By 2006, Déby found himself in another civil war, and he needed money for weapons. He promptly altered the agreement. Paul Wolfowitz, the World Bank president at the time, had previously been a slick neoconservative apparatchik inside the George W. Bush administration, but Déby successfully played him for a naïve chump. Wolfowitz squawked briefly, but then caved in. The Exxon-led consortium continues to export oil from Chad and pay Déby. No one even notices anymore, outside of a small, brave and beleaguered civil society movement in Chad.

Good, precise financial information is indispensable, but it is only a start. Global campaigns against corporations and their allies in Third World regimes will be needed to use the hard facts to press for more economic justice. And eventually, the world community may need to establish an International Economic Crimes Tribunal, with the power to extradite, try and if necessary imprison those who steal—whether they work for an African regime, or at an oil company headquarters in the United States.

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