Africa’s oil assets fuel ‘a new dynamic’

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Rotting from within

In Nigeria, basic infrastructure has rotted. Today, none of Nigeria’s main oil refineries is operable, leaving one of the world’s top oil producers completely reliant on fuel imports. In the oil region, vines climb up abandoned on-ramps to superhighways that were planned but never completed.

Meanwhile, military leaders and corrupt governments racked up tens of billions of dollars in loans, including many by Western countries or their funding bodies in hopes of setting up friendly bulwarks against communism in Africa.

But that dynamic began to shift in the late 1980s, as the Cold War came to an end. The easy money stopped flowing, and markers were called in. Overseas governments began insisting good governance be linked to aid.

While few Africans lived in multiparty democracies in the 1970s, most do today. But for many, that hasn’t translated into better living conditions for the great mass of people.

Most people live in teeming slums, including John Isah-Aaron, a 32-year-old fisherman. He is constructing his new home next to open latrines on a riverbank in the vast wetland region where militants’ attacks have cut oil output by nearly one-third.

“Look, here is where we bathe, and also where we toilet,” he said, gesturing at the befouled riverbanks. “We’re very poor.”

Much of Africa’s estimated 5.5 percent economic growth last year was attributed to China’s near-insatiable demand for the continent’s oil, gas, timber, copper and other natural resources. Economic growth for sub-Saharan Africa is expected to reach near 7 percent in 2007, according to the International Monetary Fund, even as grinding poverty endures.

U.S. interest

At the same time, the United States is also ramping up its influence in Africa. After the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, reducing reliance on oil from the Middle East has become a stated goal of the U.S. government.

Washington recently announced plans to locate a permanent military command for Africa on the continent.

“There clearly is an energy component in this,” said Navy Rear Adm. Bob Moeller, who is helping arrange the new command.

“Overall, Africa is growing in global strategic importance. Setting up this command allows us to help them help themselves in enhancing security in their countries, and across the continent writ large,” he said in a recent telephone interview.

Peter Pham, a professor of international relations at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., said, “Africa can no longer be safely ignored. …That era of benign or not-so-benign neglect is over.”

Oil will get the attention of policy-makers, but Africa’s security has become a national security issue for the United States, said Mr. Pham.

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