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Mediterranean Quarterly 15.1 (2004) 93-104

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West African Oil, U.S. Energy Policy, and Africa's Development Strategies

J. Anyu Ndumbe

The volatile political climate in the Middle East and the terrorist attack of 11 September 2001 are forcing the United States to search for new sources of oil. One attractive option is sub-Saharan Africa, which is already in the midst of an oil boom. Production levels are set to double by 2010, and new reserves are being discovered regularly. The Chad-Cameroon oil pipeline project and the early phase of exploration centered on the Atlantic coast in the Gulf of Guinea demonstrate the potential for Africa becoming one of the major oil suppliers to the West within a decade. These developments are shifting the geopolitical and geoeconomic interest of the United States in sub-Saharan Africa, which has been neglected for decades. The increased exploration in Africa has also generated fierce competition among major exploration companies and countries, and at times this has resulted in the subversion of the democratic process in favor of support for military dictatorships.

During the Cold War, U.S. policy was bent on denying Africa to the Soviet Union and combating communism. Consequently, America supported economic assistance programs carried out by international financial institutions such as the World Bank and offered technical assistance through the United States Agency for International Development. This approach was designed to fend off the Soviets and their allies but did not entail a strategic commitment to West Africa. The major players in the subregion were the former colonial masters—France, Britain, and Portugal. [End Page 93]

Many African leaders surmised at the end of the Cold War that the West almost totally abandoned Africa. However, the recent renewed interest in Africa by the West illustrates that a combination of economic and geopolitical dynamics can once again raise the continent's position on the international stage. The escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the events of 11 September 2001, the increasing anti-Western feeling in many Middle Eastern countries, and the discovery of huge oil reserves in many of the countries of sub-Saharan Africa have precipitated a massive infusion of foreign investment in the oil sector.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States began changing its policy toward Africa out of recognition of the growing importance of oil to its economy and the discovery of oil reserves in many West African countries. In 2001, the United States imported more than 16 percent of its oil from sub-Saharan Africa. This amount exceeded the amount imported from Saudi Arabia. The U.S. National Intelligence Council estimates that by 2015 the United States will import about 25 percent of its oil from the region.1 This projection has generated enthusiastic debate among various policy circles in the United States. During the past decade, West Africa—"the neglected stepchild of American diplomacy"—has been at the epicenter of energy policy debates in the United States. Businessmen and some policy analysts have called on the U.S. government to declare the region an area of strategic importance.2

Oil deposits underneath the earth's surface have no territorial confines. However, the quirks of geology and geography have made some nation-states oil producers and others consumers. In an oil-driven global market, oil often dictates geopolitics and geoeconomics. This is nowhere more evident than today in West Africa.

Africa has proven reserves of more than 7.2 percent of the world's total. These reserves amount to 76.7 billion barrels,3 an amount greater than the [End Page 94] 54.2 billion barrels of proven reserves in North America and the 58.4 billion barrels in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.4 West Africa alone has reserves of more than 46 billion barrels, and given the extensive exploration efforts under way, this is expected to reach 100 billion barrels by 2007.5 Overall production in sub-Saharan Africa is expected to jump from a current level of 3.8 million barrels...


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