How much are we in the West responsible for the oil dictatorship in the West African nation of Equatorial Guinea, as well as for other corrupt, vicious regimes in the Global South that are like it? ExxonMobil is the single largest exporter from Equatorial Guinea, and the oil giant pays the family dictatorship of Teodoro Obiang without any qualms. But the usual reaction from the West is simple: such corruption is indigenous to the Third World, and since there is little or nothing we can do about it, our responsibility is sharply limited.
Some of this moral complacency is based on simple ignorance about just how badly the oil giants behave. With The Secret World of Oil, the veteran investigative reporter Ken Silverstein offers a major correction, explaining all those things that can’t be learned in the annual reports of ExxonMobil and Chevron. His fast-paced, colorful exposé looks closely at the fixers and traders who are indispensable in oil, which is still the world’s most crucial industry. He also investigates the American law firms, lobbyists and PR agencies that protect and whitewash the petroleum dictatorships. Silverstein somehow persuaded these normally secretive people to talk frankly, and he even got Ely Calil, a notorious Lebanese-Nigerian fixer, to take him to a high-level meeting at a New York hedge fund that canvassed ways to fob off two dirty secondhand refineries on a Middle Eastern nation. In the course of his investigations, Silverstein learns that old-fashioned bribery has taken on new forms. “You used to give a dictator a suitcase of dollars,” Calil tells him; “now you give a tip on your stock shares, or buy a housing estate from his uncle or mother for ten times its worth.”
The Secret World of Oil focuses on the partnership between ExxonMobil and the family of Obiang’s son, an odious character nicknamed Teodorin, and shows how the US government has been complicit in looting Equatorial Guinea. Teodorin Obiang leads a playboy lifestyle that, as Silverstein shows, has been bankrolled by oil money. He owned a mansion in Malibu, California, that he visited on his own Gulfstream jet, and he rolled around Los Angeles in any one of his three dozen luxury cars, including four Rolls-Royces—even though, legally, his visa should have been revoked a decade ago. Only in late 2011 did the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security take action against him by filing a civil asset-forfeiture complaint, but Teodorin had already moved most of his wealth out of the country. As Silverstein notes, “the US has shown it can take action when it wants to shut down terrorist financing or starve regimes, such as Iran, of investment and trade, but it has done little to stop sitting dictators—especially oil-rich dictators—and their families from using America to stash their assets.”
Silverstein keeps ExxonMobil’s guilt front and center, reminding us that no one can be bribed without a briber. He points out that Exxon hired a private security firm in Equatorial Guinea headed by President Obiang’s brother, a well-known torturer; and he explains how Exxon “sold” Obiang himself a stake in an oil-trading business for $2,300 that was worth $644,000 a mere six years later. And while Equatorial Guinea may be a sovereign nation, ExxonMobil is an American company—one that should be subject to the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. If the Justice Department is not enforcing US law, American citizens should know about it.