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U.S. Quest for Oil in Africa Worries Analysts, Activists

Anxious to find new source, Washington may be overlooking corruption, abuse.

January 13, 2003|Warren Vieth | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration's search for more secure sources of oil is leading it to the doorsteps of some of the world's most troubled and repressive regimes: the petroleum-rich countries of West Africa.

Government and energy industry officials say the strategy is a sensible way to reduce U.S. dependence on Middle East oil, particularly if it's accompanied by aggressive efforts to promote economic development and governmental reform.

But some oil analysts and activists fear the administration may be repeating mistakes of the past, when the U.S. tolerated questionable practices by allied governments to advance its Cold War and energy security interests.

Potential trouble spots include Equatorial Guinea, where officials confiscate oil payments and violate human rights "with impunity," according to the State Department; Angola, where oil financed three decades of civil war and which has billions of petrodollars deposited in offshore accounts; and Nigeria, where poverty deepened dramatically while officials squandered $30 billion in oil revenue.

Other African producers with documented records of governmental corruption, electoral fraud, financial mismanagement or human rights abuses include Chad, Cameroon and the Republic of Congo. Although some of the countries have taken tentative steps toward reform, U.S. officials say conditions remain generally poor in the region.

"We're dealing with many governments that have never really experienced democracy or the rule of law, so it's problematic," said House Africa Subcommittee Chairman Edward R. Royce (R-Fullerton). "We need to bring some pressure to bear."

"You could paint a very disturbing picture," Walter Kansteiner, assistant secretary of State for African affairs, acknowledged in recent remarks to oil executives in Houston. "These are dire times in Africa. And yet, on the other side of the coin, there is a continent that is truly the last emerging market."

Interest in African oil has been heightened by preparations for a possible U.S.-led war against Iraq, by a strike by Venezuelan oil workers and by political instability in Saudi Arabia, all of which underscore America's vulnerability as its appetite for oil grows. West Africa already supplies about 12% of U.S. crude oil imports, and the National Intelligence Council predicts its share will rise to 25% by 2015.

Oil development in West Africa offers many attractions, experts say. Reserves are bountiful, the quality is high, and shipping routes to the U.S. are generally shorter than from other oil-producing regions.

"West Africa has certain advantages," said Daniel Yergin, an oil expert and chairman of Cambridge Energy Research Associates. "The big disadvantage is the unstable political situation -- ethnic and regional conflict, civil wars and the issues of corruption and poverty."

Indeed, if West African leaders continue to use oil revenue to line their pockets, finance military adventures and repress their citizens, resentment of U.S. foreign policy is likely to grow in the Gulf of Guinea, just as it has in the Persian Gulf, experts say.

"Anybody can see that if we're going to rely on Africa as an alternative source of supply, then we mustn't fall into the same trap that we're trying to extricate ourselves from in Saudi Arabia," said international financier George Soros, who is leading a campaign to make oil producers more accountable.

Signs of increasing U.S. engagement are bubbling up throughout the region.

The national energy plan drafted by Vice President Dick Cheney's task force spotlighted West Africa as "the fastest-growing source of oil and gas for the American market," and the administration has promised industry officials to do what it can to promote development.

The first African head of state to visit President Bush in the White House was President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria, the continent's leading producer. In September, Bush huddled privately in New York with leaders of 11 African nations, most of them current or prospective oil suppliers. Although the talks involved more than petroleum, participants said Bush discussed a $3.5-billion Chad-Cameroon pipeline project, whose partners include U.S.-based ExxonMobil Corp. and ChevronTexaco Corp.

A number of administration officials have traveled to the region in recent months. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell paid visits to Gabon and Angola, where he broke ground for a new U.S. Embassy. Bush plans to visit Africa later this year.

The administration is paying unaccustomed attention to Sao Tome and Principe, a tiny island nation of 170,000 sitting atop an estimated 4 billion barrels of newly discovered oil reserves. President Fradique de Menezes has offered to let the U.S. build a naval base in Sao Tome, and a U.S. general went there last year to discuss security issues.

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