Poisoned Wells

poisonThat’s the title of Nicolas Shaxson’s book on the dirty politics of oil in Africa.

I bought the full volume after reading his entertaining and insightful Omar Bongo chapter in an African newspaper this spring. Part memoir, investigative report, and political exposé, Shaxson’s book adds to the list of favorite scholarly journalism like The Wonga Coup and Tropical Gangters.

Most of the time Shaxson peeks into the darkened closets of oil politics. African rulers, US corporations, and (especially) French government all have their skeletons dragged out and arranged in amazing row upon amazing row.

“De Gaulle wanted a company under full state control, his secular arm in the oil world, to affirm his African policies,” a subsequent head of Elf later explained.

“Elf is not just an oil company but a parallel diplomacy to control certain African states, above all at the key moment of decolonialization. Alongside exploration and production, opaque operations was organized, to keep certain countries stable.”

Another favorite quote came from Gabonese President Bongo himself: “Africa without France is a car without a driver. France without Africa is a car without petrol.”

Once in a while, though, he gives us a sense what it’s like to be Shaxson:

It’s hard to build a career as an independent writer covering Africa. Oil-rich countries are, because of their oil, expensive to work in, and companies seeking sensitive, hard-to-get information offer fes far above what a journalist might earn. Several journalists I know from Africa’s oil zones have moved into commercial intelligence.

Another problem is being watched. Oil-rich African rulers tend not to harm Western journalists, since this upsets western governments. But they can afford large secret services…

Another difficulty is disenchantment. In the West, the fourth estate helps keep rulers in order. But in suc-Saharan Africa’s oil nations, rulers often just ignore the media. All this can be dispiriting.

Here is an inteview with Shaxson in Harper’s.