The Scramble for Oil

The Scramble for Oil

The Bush Administration’s warm embrace of the Equatorial Guinea’s despotic President Teodoro Mbasogo demonstrates how low it will go in pursuit of oil.


The State Department extended a warm welcome on April 12 to Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, president of Equatorial Guinea, a tiny but wealthy nation in West Africa. Before their meeting in Washington, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice thanked Obiang for coming to see her and called him “a good friend.” She said their talks would focus on US aid for social projects in the country and other “regional issues.” Then she cordially shook his hand and posed for the news photographers.

The visit reeked of hypocrisy. Human rights groups and corruption watchdogs list Obiang’s regime as one of the worst in the world. President since 1979, after ousting his uncle in a coup, Obiang has enjoyed unchecked power while fattening his wallet with oil concessions. Meanwhile, the people of Equatorial Guinea receive little trickle-down: The country has the second-highest per capita income in the world, but some three-quarters of the population suffer from malnutrition, half have no access to clean water and the average life expectancy is 43. Political dissent is repressed; in the 2002 elections, Obiang won with a dubious 97 percent. Amnesty International has reported that his government conducts torture and arbitrary detention of citizens.

But Equatorial Guinea is also the third-largest exporter of oil in sub-Saharan Africa, and that is why Rice and the rest of the Bush Administration find it so easy to overlook his repressive ways.

The Bush Administration has not hidden its desire to make friends with Obiang. The United States reopened its embassy to Equatorial Guinea in 2003, the Clinton Administration having closed it in 1995 to distance itself from the government’s unsavory practices. Little has changed since then except the scope of Equatorial Guinea’s oil-production capabilities.

At a 2002 forum on African oil, Walter Kansteiner, then assistant secretary of state for African affairs, admitted, “It is undeniable that this [African oil] has become of national strategic interest to us.” At the same meeting, State Department official Robert Murphy elaborated on why oil from Africa was so important to the United States. “Political discord or dispute in African oil states,” he said, “is unlikely to take on a regional or ideological tone that would result in a joint embargo by suppliers.” And Congressman Ed Royce (R-CA), former chairman of the House subcommittee on Africa, put it more bluntly: “African oil should be treated as a priority for US security post-September 11…It is very, very difficult to imagine a Saddam Hussein in Africa.”

The United States is casting an increasingly wider net in its search for fuel. The Middle East is in turmoil, Venezuela unreliable, domestic production limited. Oil prices are rising, partly due to threats from rebels in Nigeria, the standoff between the United Nations and Iran, and the damaged oil reserves on the Gulf Coast from last fall’s hurricanes. In such a turbulent international economy, every oil-rich nation counts. As Rice has cozied up to Obiang, the State Department has confirmed its friendship with another petroleum state dictator: Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan.

The former Soviet Republic is about to open a massive pipeline that may allow it to quadruple its oil exports. Transparency International, an anti-corruption group, rates Azerbaijan as one of the most corrupt countries in the world and, like Equatorial Guinea, it has a terrible human rights record. One family controls the government. In 2003 Aliyev took over the presidency from his father in what the international community saw as a flawed election. Following the vote, Human Rights Watch condemned the government for “widespread fraud,” “excessive use of force” and “arbitrarily limiting critical expression and political activism.” More than 100 opposition party members were arrested after the election, held without trial for months and tortured into signing confessions. But the Bush Administration sees a different picture. Matt Bryza, a senior official in the State Department, said recently, “We don’t see Ilham Aliyev as a dictator. We see him as the leader of a country with an emerging democracy that has a long way to go.”

As Katrina vanden Heuvel noted, Vice President Dick Cheney had advised Bush in 2001 to “deepen [our] commercial dialogue with Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and other Caspian states.” When Bush met with Aliyev in the White House on April 28, he hailed Aliyev’s “leadership” and thanked him for his “vision…in helping this world achieve what we all want, which is energy security.”

Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick scolded China in September for trying to “lock up” energy deals with “troublesome states,” such as Burma and the Sudan. But as Aliyev and Obiang prove, the United States is not much better. Despite posturing about reducing dependence on oil, the Bush Administration is now courting some of the world’s most egregious regimes–and their leaders have nothing but smiles for the situation. It was no surprise that Obiang was “very pleased” to be in Washington and that he hoped that the “relationship will continue to grow in friendship and cooperation.” As long as the oil keeps flowing, it probably will. And unfortunately for his people, probably only Obiang will reap the benefits. American dependence on foreign oil has repercussions beyond prices at the pump stateside; when it serves to prop up dictators, the human cost is shameful.

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