PORT HARCOURT, Nigeria
Europe's great powers once scrambled for dominance across vast, underdeveloped African lands rich in raw resources, including the scarlet palm oil used to grease the first cogs of the Industrial Revolution.
A century later, a new group of nations are competing for a very different kind of oil, with sub-Saharan Africa closing in on the Persian Gulf as the prime overseas supplier of petroleum to the last remaining superpower.
As China and India increasingly prospect for resources here, as terrorism concerns rise and as the U.S. military seeks a permanent military presence in Africa, the continent enjoys its greatest international influence in decades. Whether Africa can use its newfound might to end its deep-seated problems is a separate issue.
"There's a new dynamic in play" for African nations, said Antony Goldman, an independent risk-analysis consultant based in London, "and the challenge for those countries is how to manage that."
In 1993, the earliest year for which there are full figures, the main African oil-producing countries — Nigeria, Angola, Cameroon, Chad, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon — shipped about 494,000 barrels per day of oil to the United States, according to the official Energy Information Administration — just 7 percent of total U.S. imports. In the same year, the Persian Gulf nations averaged 1.6 million barrels per day, or about a quarter of all U.S. imports.
By 2006, sub-Saharan African oil constituted about 18 percent of U.S. imports, or about 1.8 million barrels per day; the Persian Gulf made up 2.2 million barrels per day, or 21 percent of total daily imports.
But the oil producers are among the sickest countries in Africa. While poorer nations such as Senegal, Mali, Liberia, Burundi and Ghana have made democratic advances, the oil countries are still mostly run by weak or illegitimate leaders.
Angola is emerging from one of the continent's longest-running civil wars. Chad, which has only been exporting oil for a few years, is in the depths of one. Chad's crude reaches African export terminals in oil-rich Cameroon, whose president has been in power for a quarter of a century.
Next door is Equatorial Guinea, where per-capita gross domestic product boosted by oil revenues is among the highest in the world, while its ranking on the U.N. human-development index is near the bottom.
And then there is Nigeria, where the challenges facing Africa, and particularly its petroleum producers, are on desperate display. Nigeria is Africa's biggest producer of oil and among the top three outside suppliers of crude to America.
Some of the first Europeans to arrive here centuries ago were slave merchants and traders seeking palm oil, which women still produce in Nigeria's crude-rich Niger Delta by crushing bright crimson, palm-tree kernels on potholed roads outside massive oil installations that belch smoke and flames.
Despite the hundreds of billions of dollars of oil revenues — there was another massive oil boom in the 1970s — most of Nigeria's 140 million people remain desperately poor. About 70 percent of the population lives on less than $2 per day, United Nations figures show.
Much of the oil money has been stolen by corrupt leaders or misspent on wasteful government boondoggles. In Nigeria alone, the World Bank estimates about $300 billion of government oil funds can't be accounted for. By contrast, oil-rich Norway has about that same amount in a government-controlled fund where the petroleum surpluses are kept.
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.
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.
It all adds up to a rare moment of potential influence for Africa, he said, but only if African leaders can at last end their record of self-enrichment at the expense of their own people.
c Associated Press researcher Monika Mathur in New York contributed to this report.