Everyone in the world needs oil. While the Middle East continues to become unstable, the world looks to Africa to quench its thirst for the nonrenewable energy source. Oxford scholar John Ghazvinian describes his exciting and at times dangerous 12-country African trek to explore the unwanted effects of the oil boom on the continent in his fascinating book Untapped .
In line with recent books about African oil, Ghazvinian reveals how Africa is seen as one of the last major areas in the world where untouched reserves remain and therefore has attracted the attention of multinational corporations and politicians alike. Untapped is a necessary read in understanding international politics.
Due to the colonial history of the continent that led to tenuous political democracy, the business of oil fuels many of Africa’s oil rich nations’ internal social and economic problems. Why oil is seen as a curse is thoroughly explained, including the analysis of economist Hossein Mahdavy in describing African oil countries as “rentier” states. An ill-fated effect of oil leads to increased reliance on oil as an export, which leads to the breakdown of traditional national markets, which leads to lack of jobs, not to mention the lack of a tax base, political corruption and little incentive to improve infrastructure.
Writing in an engaging and eloquent narrative form, Ghazvinian leads the reader through Nigeria, Angola, Gabon, Sudan, Equatorial Guinea, Chad and other various African nations to explain how the business of oil works and how it effects the people. He ditches the academic writing style for easy-to-understand language; at times he sounds like an informed enthusiastic tourist in his firsthand accounts. “During a week and a half in [Gabon], I feasted on beef bourguignon and rack of lamb…but never did I manage to find a bunch of bananas for sale,” Ghazvinian writes concerning a country that used to export bananas but now imports the majority of its food.
Behind all of the ills of Nigeria’s political corruption, Angola’s bloody civil war, Equatorial Guinea’s lack of governance and Chad’s nonexistent infrastructure lie the uncomfortable relationships between Africa, large corporations and the West. Ghazvinian reveals how moral obligations to African nations are severely compromised when it comes to drilling for oil. A perfect example of this is the deteriorating condition of Nigeria’s Delta region, where most of the country’s oil resides. The author’s firsthand accounts of desperate, militant villagers against the backdrop of a lush, heavily fortified compound for expatriate oil workers mirrors the stark reality of the price for oil.
The complex relationship between the European former colonizers and the formerly colonized is strained at best. Ghazvinian also describes in detail America’s blunders in Africa, including its responsibility for prolonging the Angolan civil war and their support for the repressive Equatorial Guinea government. This leads to what many have observed as China’s rise to power. Indeed, the last chapter of Untapped is devoted to China’s quick-fix political strategy in Africa, which results in China giving aid to Africa, no questions asked, in exchange for lucrative drilling rights.
And therein lies the future of oil. The major players for now remain the U.S. and Europe with China and India perhaps merely taking over the role of turning a blind eye towards Africa’s woes. No clear solutions are found in Untapped , but the book provides a way to discuss the pressing issues of surrounding oil. As the author points out, “the growing international competition for Africa’s oil wealth is complex, boisterous, and extremely fluid.” Everyone in the world still needs oil.