News released at the end of February that Liberia was on the cusp of an unprecedented oil discovery garnered much more than just praise and adulation. Listservs and websites lit up one by one with lightening speed.
Liberians reacted like rabid bulldogs frothing at the mouth, barking at the Liberian government, oil giants Chevron, Anadarko, and the relatively unknown African Petroleum about the dangers of the ‘resource curse’. These energetic reactions from an increasingly politicised population are perhaps evidence of the healthy debate that never quite got off the ground in Nigeria when that country first discovered oil.
Some commentators are likening the West African sub-region to the old ‘Wild West,’ with oil figuring prominently as a site of multiple contestations: political, social and economic. One online report stated that, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, West Africa’s coast, which covers Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea, is home to an estimated 3,200 million barrels of oil and 23,629 cubic feet of gas.
Nigeria’s oil woes, marked by often violent anti-government actions in Ogoniland and across the Niger Delta, have been a sobering lesson of what can go wrong. Sierra Leone, which discovered oil in 2009, is being accused of speeding through its Petroleum Act vetting process, which was largely guided by agreements with oil companies and lacked proper civil society engagement. Ghana has followed a slightly different, and perhaps healthier, trajectory. When oil was discovered in 2007 government made some attempt to engage with civil society at large, even enabling petroleum agreements to be posted on the Ministry of Energy’s website.
As the global population expands and countries like China and the U.S. compete for dwindling energy resources, oil and gas could become a springboard for Africa to leverage its relatively untapped potential. But in all the excitement we shouldn’t have selective amnesia – it isn’t hard to find examples of oil resources having a negative effect in the political sphere. For example, oil revenues helped Sudan fund the government’s genocidal war in the 1990s against what is now the sovereign nation-state of South Sudan. In Congo-Brazzaville in 1997, President Denis Sassou-Nguesso’s private militia used money obtained from the sale of rights to Congo’s future oil production to fuel a four-month war against incumbent President Pascal Lissouba. And Angola’s vast oil reserves were used by the government to set up oil for arms deals with its international business partners, which enabled oil companies to profit directly from the civil war in that country.
The difference between then and now is that the political space seems to be shifting away from being the exclusive domain of the rich and powerful. Civil society groups across Africa are partnering with media watchdogs, and organisations such as Global Witness are producing a plethora of reports which have become a thorn in the flesh of multinational oil companies and governments. Civil society is showing that it will not take the granting of new oil concessions lightly. This is why the Publish What You Pay Campaign was launched in June 2002 – to demand that companies with the extractive industry publish all their payments to governments and public agencies in