New oil discoveries to drive future conflicts in West Africa?

22 Sep 2009 admin

New oil finds off the coast of West Africa raise fears of oil corporations causing increased militarization in a region not yet touched by the crude resource curse.

In mid-September US corp Anadarko and Irish/British company Tullow announced a major oil-discovery off the coast of Sierra Leone. The FT’s map below shows how this find coupled with Tullow/Anadarko’s existing Jubilee field off Ghana

”established a whole new, active hydrocarbons system that spanned at least 1,000km to the coast of Ghana and perhaps all the way to the Latin American nation of Guinea.”

According to the FT, Tullow & Anadarko have snapped up the right to explore much of the coastline between their Ghanaian field and the Venus well off Sierra Leone. We might also see the larger oil majors like BP or Shell trying to buy their way into this new basin, expanding their existing operations in the Niger Delta further west.

”The basin could be a game changer for the industry. Analysts at Sanford Bernstein believe it could attract big companies which are not present there.”

Tullow Oil is attracting attention both for its rapid expansion in Africa and for concerns over its role in feeding conflict and militarization. In 2008 the Congo-DRC government accused Tullow of enlisting the Ugandan army to cross the border into North Kivu to conduct prolonged military operations inside its territory, and as a result confiscated Tullow’s licences in the region.

However, Tullow was allowed to return to Congo (DRC) after a March 2009 agreement between Pres Museveni of Uganda & Pres Kabila of DRC covering military co-operation & collaboration in exploiting oil discoveries by Lake Albert (on the border). The agreement and joint Ugandan & Congolese attacks on militias in the area in spring seemed to leed to response attacks from the rebels.

In Uganda itself, there has been increasing government talk of the “threat” to the Lake Albert region and oil operations there from “new groups”. This is probably partly to justify the building of “oil surveillance posts” – army bases – being built near to Tullow & Heritage’s oil operations. To construct a new base near Hoima, the government plan to evict 2,000 families living on 10 square miles surrounding a refugee settlement. While local residents & MPs have promised to resist the eviction, an empathetic army spokesman said “They [the refugees] are lucky we are not charging them with criminal trespass.”

Increased conflict connected to Tullow is not restricted to onshore oil extraction. The company owns a 32% stake in offshore oilfields on the Bangladeshi-Burmese border, which have led to recent naval escalation between gun boats over maritime boundaries.

While the Niger Delta’s ongoing conflict is very specific to its history of environmental exploitation and repression of local communities, the role of both the state and oil companies in creating & feeding the conflict is clear. Liberia and Sierra Leone are still recovering from civil wars fuelled by resources destined for European and American markets, including diamonds & timber. The seeming militarising impact of Tullow’s operations elsewhere does not bode well for Sierra Leone, Liberia or Ivory Coast.

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