Africa and oil

Saturday 30 October, 5.15pm until 6.30pm, Café

While the BP leak off the coast of the US showed accidents can happen as a result of oil production even in the most developed countries, scandals involving the oil industry are more often associated with another continent - Africa. The industry is heavily criticised by environmentalists, human rights activists and fair trade advocates around the world. Big Oil is indicted for causing massive environmental damage (oil spills and gas flares in the Niger Delta); for the role of oil money in propping up repressive and corrupt regimes; and for disrupting the traditional customs and livelihoods of indigenous people such as the Ogoni and Ijaw. Transnational oil corporations are also accused of complicity in repressive crack-downs on opponents of oil extraction. November 10 marks the fifteenth anniversary of the execution of environmentalist Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight of his colleagues: this infamous event seems to illustrate the tragic price of extracting Africa’s ‘dark nectar’. But of course there is another side to the story.

Even sceptics must concede oil production has been hugely and directly beneficial to the economies of a number of African countries, and indirectly to the continent as a whole. Nigeria is Africa’s second-largest economy, while Angola has recently overtaken it as the largest crude producer in Africa, using its own rich natural resources to recover from the ravages of civil war. Oil companies claim they have listened to criticism and are increasingly involved in providing resources to local communities. Inequality, corruption and environmental damage are often the flipside of development. Might it be that hostility to Big Oil in Africa lies more in Western disquiet with the very notion of economic growth? If growth is not to come from oil, are we saying that Nigerians should go back to the land? Is the real lesson that Nigeria must develop less?

Of course advocates of growth have to acknowledge that even in countries rich in natural resources and seemingly benefiting from development, millions of people still remain in poverty. But how much is this the fault of oil companies? And is it even right to demand that multinationals take responsibility for the internal political and social problems of sovereign states? It is surely telling that Nigeria continues to strengthen its relationship with China in return for investment that comes without the baggage of moralising critiques. Given the obvious downsides as well as the economic benefits of oil production in Africa, what balance should we put on these arguments?

Listen to session audio:


Dara Akala
senior programme manager, Living Earth Foundation; promotes sustainable community development in Niger Delta

Barnaby Briggs
strategic relations manager with focus on Nigerian issues, Shell

Joseph Hurst Croft
executive director, Stakeholder Democracy Network; lobbyist and researcher into the political economy of violence in the Niger Delta

Dipo Salimonu
chief executive, Ateriba Limited; journalist, Africa Confidential

Kirk Leech
interim director, European Animal Research Campaign Centre; government affairs, Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry

Produced by
Kirk Leech interim director, European Animal Research Campaign Centre; government affairs, Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry
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