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Guide Poisoned Wells: The Dirty Politics of African Oil

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Forgotten your password? Article available in:. Vol 27, Issue 4, Union Seminary Magazine. Flesh in the Age of Reason. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. Cookies Notification This site uses cookies. A functioning queue is really two queues: a physical one and a mental one. Disrupt the physical queue—by nudging a truck through it, say, or dousing it with a fire hose—and if the mental queue remains intact, then order will reemerge, in the same way that stable countries recover from economic shocks or terrorist attacks. But there is a more damaging way to disrupt a queue: push in at the front.

This assaults everyone's belief in it, and if it happens enough, the scrambling starts and it will collapse. There is then no easy way to rebuild it, no matter how much you shout. Take the analogy further.

Imagine the queue consists of, say, Americans, French, British, Chinese, and others pick your prejudice , just as Nigeria is divided between Yorubas, Hausas, Igbos, Ijaws, and others. The pushing-in is getting worse, and you think you notice that the culprits are mostly from the group that you hate. Your faith in the queue will collapse faster, and you will hate the other group a bit more.

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Now imagine that your whole family has sent you to represent them in this line for food, which is too scarce to go around. You will jostle even more aggressively, the scramble will intensify, and the strongest and slipperiest characters, and those who can form alliances with their own people to thwart the other groups, will stand the best chance of getting to the front. This image helps me understand better the contrast between the hospitality and generosity you find in African homes, and the venality of many African rulers.

Most corrupt people act like that only because they know everyone else is. You see the scrambling and indiscipline everywhere: real lines degenerating into free-for-alls, or drivers forcing themselves selfishly into traffic and blocking everyone, are a version of this lack of trust and respect. Politicians think that if they don't grab what they can, someone worse will get it, so even if a dollar's worth of road repair saves a thousand dollars in broken axles, the holes remain unfilled.

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As the citizens of this ethnically and religiously fractured nation have jostled, then scrambled, for what they can get of the oil money, long-term planning, shared nationhood and trust in each other—the keys to Nigeria's economic development—have dissolved. This splintering of the national good is really what corruption is. Later in the book I will propose a way of restoring some of this trust. Another student remembered him as "a stunning extrovert [who] regularly held court among the bedazzled students, whom he often left speechless.

When the police were called, Fela called a London bobby a "foolish bastard. The British had handed over a country with three regions: the North, roughly corresponding to the hegemonies of the mostly Muslim Hausa-Fulani; the West, dominated by Yorubas; and the predominantly Igbo East. The North produced grains and groundnuts, the West grew cocoa, and the East produced palm oil.

Each pulled its own weight in the federation, more or less, and this mitigated political tension. But oil, which had been discovered in , was beginning to grow in importance.

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Poisoned Wells | Nicholas Shaxson | Macmillan

As it grew, the relationship changed fundamentally, as regions now had to compete for their share of the cake from an oil-fed center. Oil-producing areas said that they should get the most, the more populous regions argued that they should take precedence, while the poorest felt that they were most deserving. It was a huge, endless, unwinnable argument.

Before long, regionally based political parties were clashing. Though the fighting was not obviously about oil, it was on everyone's minds.


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Nigerians talk of a "National Question," which has many variants but is essentially this: how can the federation best be configured to hold its bickering groups together? Over time, in the spirit of old British divide-and-rule policies, Nigeria's rulers first split the regions into states, then split the states, again and again. Each new state had its own minorities who felt that the dominant groups in their state were snaffling the cash, so they pushed for their own smaller states, to get more of the cake for themselves.

Today there are 36 states.


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Each new subdivision had new configurations of minorities, so the bickering continued, only in more decentralized ways. By , oil made up a third of Nigeria's exports, and some Igbo officers, resentful that federal spending was skewed they thought to favor northerners, mounted a bloody coup, vowing to fight corruption, tribalism, and the enemies of progress: "the ten percenters, homosexuals, feudal lords, etc. African oil is sweeter and lighter than Middle Eastern crudes and in recent years it has begun to look increasingly desirable.

Nicholas Shaxson - Poisoned Wells and Dirty Politics - interview - Goldstein on Gelt - Jan. 2012

But there is competition: China now imports more than a quarter of its oil from African countries and Angola has overtaken Saudi Arabia to become its chief supplier. All the other states he discusses are cursed by their valuable natural resource, which accounts in most cases for more than 90 per cent of export earnings. Today, local agriculture has collapsed, life expectancy is low and child mortality — like corruption, conflict and debt — is high. Most people in these oil-producing states are becoming poorer. Shaxson provides some vivid glimpses into the misery of these seemingly rich nations, but his real concern is to explain how and why they have failed so badly.

Shaxson also dislikes moralising critiques of African leadership, and suggests that politicians there take their jobs more seriously than many in the West imagine. This deterministic view sits uneasily alongside the evidence, presented later in the book, that seems to suggest it is a mistake to exonerate greedy businessmen and politicians, whether they are Western or African.

The country had just entered the oil age and a small American wildcat company, Walter International, was already pumping and exporting crude.

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By the mids, Big Oil was moving in. Mobil now ExxonMobil got lucky offshore and, thanks to a deal struck by the previous operator, was making an extraordinary profit. Shaxson toys with the idea that the US and possibly Spain and Britain encouraged the attempted coup.

The US would have had good reason to welcome a change of regime. They have certainly done so: at the time of the failed coup, Equatorial Guinea was recovering just 26 per cent of the value of its oil compared to 45 per cent at the time in Angola and 90 per cent in Nigeria. Were Teodoro to succeed his father, who has ruled the country since , he might well decide to teach the Americans a lesson and look for new oil partners.