Oil Change International

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The rhetoric changes but what about the reality?

ghana_speechIt was a great speech full of powerful oratory. When Obama addressed the Ghanaian parliament on his first trip to Africa over the weekend, his speech was peppered with the concepts of America and Africa working together in a powerful, partnership.

Obama told his audenice that Africans needed to remove the millstone of conflict around their neck and build democracies based on good governance and transparency. The message was clear, the delivery was strong, the sound-bites flowed and the audience loved it.

“The 21st Century will be shaped not just in Rome, Moscow and Washington but what happens in Accra as well,”   said Obama at one point, to great applause.  At the end, his speech received a standing ovation at the parliament and a highly enthusiastic reaction back in Europe and America.

“At a stroke Obama has reformed the relationship between Africa and the West”, argues Richard Dowden, the Director of the Royal African Society.

But despite the glowing rhetoric of partnership and need for good governance is the reality that America needs Africa’s rich natural resources, including oil and gas. Indeed, Obama omitted the fact that the US’s own economic interests in Africa have frequently overruled the democratic, good governance agenda which he himself was advocating. He also omitted that America has an overriding need for Africa’s resources.

As Richard Dowden pointed out many of these “failing” countries in Africa – which Obama was criticising – are also rich in minerals that America needs. The US already imports 15 per cent of its oil from West Africa, with this expected to rise to 25 per cent in the near future. Much of this comes from Nigeria.

As West Africa’s biggest producer – Nigeria – continues to be crippled by community unrest and corruption, Ghana may be a potentially safer source of oil for the US. Although its production is much smaller – only a tenth of Nigeria  – its total oil reserves could be quite substantial: up to 10 billion barrels.

It’s all very well for Obama to demand good governance and transparency, but the Chinese are also heavily investing in Africa – carpet-bombing the continent with cash, as one pundit puts it – and the Chinese do not give a damn about good governance and human rights. All they are interested in is acquiring Africa’s mineral wealth.

So just as Obama and America demand that Africa gets a conscience – the Chinese do not come with such moral baggage. At the end of the day, despite Obama’s change of rhetoric, and inspirational sound, we are in the early throws of a resource conflict between America and China over Africa’s resources.

This is not lost on some in the North American media. As the Globe and Mail pointed out, after Obama’s visit “questions are lingering about two key issues that formed a tacit subtext to his visit: oil and military bases. “Ghana itself is an emerging source of oil and a possible site for “forward operating bases” in the U.S. anti-terrorism campaign. But both subjects have sparked so much controversy and resistance from Africans that Mr. Obama was careful to use diplomatic language when he talked of oil and guns. ”

In a little-noticed paragraph in his speech, Obama offered “technical assistance and logistical support”. He also made it clear that his new administration would continue to expand the Pentagon’s controversial Africa Command – an initiative set up to by his George Bush, to bolster U.S. military activity in Africa.

The Globe and Mail argues that “In his budget request for 2010, Mr. Obama has proposed a significant rise in spending on Africom. By some estimates, his plan would double the Africom budget… The Africom commander, General William Ward, has hinted that he wants new military sites in Africa, although he called them “infrastructure nodes” to indicate that they would be smaller than a full-scale base.”

So the rhetoric may have changed radically from George W, but has America’s policy on accessing oil from the region? It doesn’t look like it.

History has been made by Obama telling his audience that, like them, “the blood of Africa is within me”. But some things don’t change and that is America’s need for oil and its rivalry with the Chinese to get to Africa’s black gold.

And in that sense Obama is right, part of the history of the 21st century will be shaped in Accra.

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