x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

The blessed curse

Books In his new book, Duncan Clarke describes oil as Africa's way out of poverty and assails those who see the resource as a corrupting influence on the continent's politics. Lara Pawson finds his thesis crude.

The oil age: Clarke argues that oil, far from being a curse, will modernise Africa and lead it out of what he dubs- without ever defining - "African medievalism".
The oil age: Clarke argues that oil, far from being a curse, will modernise Africa and lead it out of what he dubs- without ever defining - "African medievalism".

In his new book, Duncan Clarke describes oil as Africa's way out of poverty and assails those who see the resource as a corrupting influence on the continent's politics. Lara Pawson finds his thesis crude.

Crude Continent: The Struggle for Africa's Oil Prize Duncan Clarke Profile Books Dh192

Duncan Clarke is quite right: thanks to impressive oil deposits there exists today "an Afrique utile". African oil comprises 12.5 per cent of global output - significantly less than the Middle East's 30 per cent - but a glance at recent statistics demonstrates how the author of Crude Continent can insist Africa has become "the world's greatest frontier in oil exploration". The United States, for example, wants a quarter of its crude imports to come from Africa within the next six years; already, Algeria, Angola and Nigeria combined supply almost 20 per cent. In 2007, almost a third of Chinese oil imports came from Africa, with Angola overtaking Saudi Arabia as the Asian giant's number one supplier. A wide array of other countries, including some you probably never knew existed such as the Republic of Tatarstan, are investing in African oil. Add to that the flood of 500 companies from around the globe currently scrambling for Africa's dark sticky stuff, and you start to get an idea of what "useful" means.

Oil exploration in Africa began more than a century ago, and production about 50 years later, but only during the past 10 years has the wealth of the continent's acreage been fully recognised. This decade of oil flow has overlapped very neatly with a steep rise in global oil consumption. BP's Statistical Review of World Energy reports that from 1995 to 2007 oil consumption leapt from 69.5 million barrels a day to 85.2 million. In five years' time, that figure is predicted to rise to 94 million. Good news for African oil producers, you might say - and Clarke, who's spent 30 years networking across the industry, would agree. As head of the international firm Global Pacific & Partners, he is a consultant on the exploration business and organises some of the biggest international oil gatherings on offer.

The thrust of Crude Continent is precisely (and often, not so precisely) this: oil, far from being a curse, could actually save Africa. It is oil that will modernise Africa and oil that will lead it out of what Clarke dubs - without ever defining - "African medievalism". Clarke argues that those countries without oil are the ones that are truly cursed, for they will be left "largely backward". So the real tragedy of Burkina Faso, the third poorest country in the world, is that "there is no imminent 'oil curse' on the horizon to relieve this dire predicament". Likewise, "If Swaziland is cursed, it is by an absence of hydrocarbons, not any abundance." Clarke even encourages the tiny West African archipelago nation of Cape Verde to "encroach" into its neighbours' territories to filch a piece of the hydrocarbon cake. In Africa's horn, he regrets Eritrea's "lost decade", a reference to the young state's lack of interest in the author's annual Africa Upstream Conference on oil exploration. During 10 years of absenteeism, apparently Eritrea made no advances at all. Clarke's conclusion: "Oil discovery and development could offer salvation."

This intriguing notion is preached throughout Crude Continent, with Clarke seeking to expose as fools those who argue that Africa's oil-rich countries are being poisoned to the core by the so-called "resource curse". Our candid author is particularly incensed by two experts' "scribblings on oil", both released last year: Oil and Politics in the Gulf of Guinea by Ricardo Soares de Oliveira, an Oxford lecturer; and Poisoned Wells: The Dirty Politics of African Oil by Nicholas Shaxson, an associate fellow at Chatham House, London.

Chunks of Crude Continent are devoted to debunking Shaxson's deterministic view that oil is a "corrupting substance" which makes African people poorer and their leaders richer. Shaxson argues that multinational oil companies in the 1990s became "like giant banks" offering large loans to presidents like Equatorial Guinea's Obiang Nguema in return for generous operating contracts. Foreign bankers followed, setting up a range of shielded schemes and shell companies into which the greedy leader could stuff his expanding stash. "Just as heroin addicts lose interest in work, health, family and friends and focus increasingly on the next fix," Shaxson writes, "so politicians in oil-dependent countries lose interest in their fellow citizens, as they try to get access to the free cash." His other real concern is the way in which the international financial system - especially all those bankers and accountants based in the City of London, Washington and tax havens across the globe - helps to hide the ill-gotten gains of oil.

Clarke, however, says the real problem is less "corporate [oil] malevolence" than the continent's "medievalism", flawed politics and troubled history. African states, he points out, haven't been around as long as Europe's. We must get to grips, he suggests, with its past. At times the author seems to pick fights with imaginary enemies, arguing aggressively about assertions that no one - at least not these experts - has ever made. He tangles himself up refuting the suggestion that pre-oil Africa was a utopian world. Whoever said it was? And he exhausts the reader, if not himself, with repetitive statements insisting that coercive regimes existed before oil. Nobody with a cursory knowledge of the continent would deny that. So what, exactly, is Clarke trying to say?

While acknowledging that corruption and bad governance are a problem, he wants us to ponder the benefits of oil, particularly "corporate oil". Contrary to the "curse" literature, Crude Continent insists that most corporate oil deals are not "contaminated". Clarke asks us to consider what he calls the long-term "multiplier effects", the direct and indirect benefits of the oil and gas industry, including employment creation, foreign exchange inputs and capital inflow, technology transfers, fiscal funding and "indirect supply chain effects". These are much more significant than the "palliative band-aid? of corporate social investment" that Clarke clearly detests. He berates the fact that no one has ever "properly identified and measured" the social and economic benefits of oil and gas projects in Africa. Why not? It's a pertinent question, and one that is tempting to throw back at the author himself.

Wading through Crude Continent's 567 pages (643, if you include the notes), the irony is that the reader gets the distinct impression that oil is indeed a bit of a curse. For all his banging and shouting about other authors' alleged analytical failures, Clarke explains how oil provokes conflict in African states. "Nigeria's political order," he writes, "remains fragile, with the struggle over oil and its control at the heart of the power nexus in Abuja and elsewhere." He seems to support Shaxson's "curse" thesis that people living in oil-rich Africa are getting poorer: excluding a select elite, real income in Nigeria has fallen by 1.5 per cent per head every year for the last three decades. That's Clarke's information, not mine.

In Gabon, where President Omar Bongo celebrates 41 years in power this month, we learn that "petroleum remains king". Clarke warns that the extent of centralised presidential power "may bode ill for a future with less oil, one that risks greater impoverishment at the bottom of the income ladder while pressures emerge on oil reserves". The conflict between north and south Sudan that began in 1984 was "as much an oil war as anything else", and petroleum exploration will remain limited while the country's political problems continue. Regularly tumbling into appalling metaphor and analogy, Clarke nevertheless concludes: "North and south Sudan may be bound by the umbilical cords of a chequered politics and oil history, but as with Siamese twins these links can also be severed." At the time of writing, Hope Williams, one of the conjoined twins that underwent an operation to be separated at London's Great Ormond Street Hospital, has just died.

So much for salvation. Clarke's literary and analytical skills clearly do not match the ambitions of this bulky book; but the shame is that his experience in Africa is indeed considerable. Parts three and four provide the reader with 140 pages of comprehensive information on corporate oil operations in Africa and the global scramble for the big prize. Leaving aside his irritating penchant for metamorphosis - lions become countries, rhinos turn into multinationals et cetera - Clarke offers readers the chance to delve into his vast wealth of knowledge. Together with a comprehensive index, these two sections make it easy to find out which company is drilling what wells, where and with whom. Our expert guide also leads us around the world explaining how different nations are capturing Africa's oil and gas potential. All fascinating stuff.

The trouble is Crude Continent is presented to us as a history book. From the start we are hectored and lectured by Clarke, who promises he will reach the parts other writers - a whole host of them - cannot. In fact, part two, in which we are taken on a tour of the entire continent, rarely refers to any African history prior to independence, and only cursory references are made to colonial let alone pre-colonial times. Earlier in the book there is a strange if well-meaning chapter in which a spurious link is made between corporate oil's discovery of hydrocarbons in Africa and the travel and scholarly work of the 16th century Muslim, Leo Africanus. Meanwhile, Clarke boasts that the task of "writing Africa", as he calls it, is easy for him thanks to his special relationship with the continent as an "autochthonous white". He was born in Salisbury, as Harare was then known, the grandson of an Irishman who moved to southern Africa in 1895. Today, he carries an Irish passport. None of which should really matter - except that Clarke makes such a fuss about his claims to the continent, as if place of birth somehow lends weight to the work. It does not.

Instead of devoting so many pages to slagging off other people's books, asserting absent historical insight and tirelessly defending corporate oil, couldn't Clarke have dug a little deeper into the contradictions inherent in the global oil industry? He may be right to dismiss Shaxson's notion that oil is intrinsically evil, but he ought to provide us with the facts that show how oil extraction is helping Africa. Given his global insider knowledge, Clarke is in a position to help us understand how African countries might follow the lead of Scandinavia, or Alaska and the Gulf, where resource wealth has been put to relatively effective public use.

And it would have been interesting to read his thoughts on the pertinent debates surrounding our addiction to cheap energy. It is common knowledge that ravenous oil consumption in Western Europe, the United States and, increasingly, China, is the main reason the planet is starting to overheat. So it seems astounding that a book published in 2008, written by a man who is said to be passionate about Africa, could fail to mention how oil is damaging the environment, with poor people affected first and foremost. The perpetuation of the petroleum age might make the current crop of oil executives and certain political leaders happy, but it is dangerously optimistic to suggest that the future well-being of African people depends primarily on drilling oil.

Lara Pawson is a writer, commentator and blogger. She is currently working on a book about Angola.