User:Davidsmith/Book Reviews/Poisoned Wells

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Poisoned Wells: The Dirty Politics of African Oil by Nicholas Shaxson

Ringing alarm bells on murky money

BY DAVID SMITH Nicolas Sarkozy did not say much about Africa during his campaign for the French presidency. Perhaps he’s waiting for fallout from the Chirac years to blow over before he publicly resumes France’s “hands-on” approach to relations with its former colonies.

This is one of the scenarios easy to imagine after reading Nicholas Shaxson’s powerful new book Poisoned Wells. The cut line says it all: The Dirty Politics of African Oil. If there’s a common thread in the book it is the story of French influence in Africa, the extent of which few nonfrancophones on the continent are really aware.

Does the name Charles Pasqua ring any bells? Pasqua was France’s interior minister and led a right-wing party which aimed to challenge Jacques Chirac in the 2002 elections. Sarkozy was his right hand man. The challenge fell apart.

Pasqua was implicated in the Angolagate scandal which, in simple terms, meant that Angola got arms in return for supplying the French with oil. Some say the deal marked the turning point in the Angolan war, as Unita never recovered from the new French-supplied firepower in Luanda.

So what’s so bad about the French helping to end the war in Angola? If that was where the story started and ended, one could argue that the Angolans should be thanking the French. They didn’t and Poisoned Wells explains why not. France eventually lost its oil rights to the Chinese as Beijing introduced its policy of no-strings cash to Africa. The strength of Shaxson’s book is his ability to dig deep below the surface.

He digs until he finds links to politicians, banks, oil companies and influence peddlers that one could never imagine. Other links are more obvious, such as the special relationship between Gabon’s President Omar Bongo and whoever happens to be in power in France. Much of the book is about France’s man in Africa and how Bongo protects French interests while France ensures that he gets all the help he needs to keep his position as longest-serving president on the continent. Help apparently includes giving the Gabonese leader the tools he needs to influence his neighbours, including oil-rich Congo-Brazzaville. I was once on a train travelling from Brazzaville to the port city of Pointe-Noire, centre of what was then the French oil company Elf ’s (now Total) operations in Congo. Pascal Lissouba was president, and former President Denis Sassou-Nguesso was fighting a bush war to get his old job back. The train was attacked by Sassou-Nguesso’s men. Lissouba loyalists on board successfully kept them at bay. Not long after I left the country, Lissouba was finally deposed. Ever since that time I’ve been trying to get a clear picture as to what really happened in Brazzaville. The fog has cleared since reading Poisoned Wells. Many of the strings that were pulled while I was on that infamous train journey were being pulled from the presidential palace in Libreville, Gabon. Foreign influence aside, Shaxson’s book is most interesting for the alarm bells it rings on the danger of oil for democracy.

Why, he asks, is there much more poverty in Nigeria today than there was before oil was first discovered? His answer: Nigeria’s leaders don’t need Nigerians. They don’t need a tax base. All the money the politicians need comes from oil revenues. In fact, Shaxson says, the Nigerian government would probably prefer having far fewer people in the country to bother them with their demands. Poisoned Wells provides some insight into why the Niger Delta is such a violent place. Unlike Angola, Equatorial Guinea and Congo, where most of the oil is off-shore and out of sight of the impoverished masses, oil rigs in the Niger Delta are smack in the middle of the villages of some of the poorest people on the continent. The people of the Niger Delta watch the oil come out of the ground and get shipped off from tanker terminals that used to be slaving stations. Officially, the oil revenues are supposed to be shared with the oil producing states. There’s a lot of disagreement about how that sharing system should work.

Shaxson suggests watching the mafia movie classics Goodfellas and The Godfather to help understand the politics of the Delta, describing the films as “a crash course in Nigerian corruption and violence associated with anger”.

Angola is the only country in southern Africa that doesn’t live in the economic shadow of South Africa. Oil has much to do with Luanda’s attempts to become the second economic powerhouse in the region. Money from oil that isn’t disappearing into offshore accounts – and Shaxson goes into great detail on how these accounts operate – is being put into infrastructure.

However, Shaxson claims that Angola is following the same path Nigeria followed in the early days of the Niger Delta oil boom, building showcase projects and forgetting the people on the ground, despite the windfall from higher oil prices. He says Angola’s oil success is hollow. It’s obvious that Shaxson is passionate about his subject. He has been covering the politics and economics of African oilp r o d u c i n g nations for more than a decade, writing regularly for the Financial Times and the Economist. It’s also clear that he knows more than he puts on paper. Several asides are made in Poisoned Wells about names and details he’s simply too terrified to write down. I’m not certain that I would be at ease reading this book at a café in Libreville or Luanda without covering it in brown paper. It’s strong, it names names and it points fingers. It’s also not all bad news. Shaxson concludes with considered responses to the enormous obstacles the oil-producing states need to remove to begin building their countries. Radical surgery is what he says is required to put things right. One of the most obvious remedies he says is to change the laws on international banking and taxation.

If money can’t be hidden overseas, an alternative might be to spend it at home. Keeping the status quo, he argues, will ultimately be worse for all concerned.

Poisoned Wells is published by Palgrave Macmillan at R394.