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Untapped: The Scramble for Africa's Oil

17 Aug 2008

Highly recommended.

This is a sort of well-referenced diary of a journalist traveling to most of Africa’s oil-producing countries. He interviews everyone involved, from oil execs to the maimed soldiers of wars fought over it, and keeps a very balanced view, while making sure to put out all of the numbers as he goes. Much more interesting than the numbers themselves, but not discounting the overarching statistics for the sake of a few friendly faces he meets, the whole thing comes off as an exceedingly well done overview of oil in Africa.

It seems almost impossible for a journalist or writer these days to write about anyone that’s poor without blaming the rest of the world, and Ghazvinian avoids all of that. When he’s done, you can certainly sympathize with Nigerian oil thieves, and you see that such a line of work, even counting the risk of criminal prosecution, is the most rational way not just to get ahead, but survive at all. But they are not freedom fighters fighting against the man, and the man is not there specifically to exploit them. He doesn’t go off on a single anti-globalization bender, and even takes the time to note that such an argument is not really relevant to the question of what to do with oil money. If only there were more people writing like this; I could be interested in politics again.

I learned an awful lot from this: how no country but Norway has really turned oil wealth into a boon, why that happens, and why it seems unpreventable. Just how little influence China really has in Africa, but why that might explode. How much Africa really has (about as much as Saudi Arabia), and why its so much more expensive (corrupt governments, wars, nationalizations).

Of note is that this book mentioned some of the programs I work for. They were not presented in a particularly glowing halo. I didn’t realize all of the countries we’re suddenly concerned about suppressing terrorism in are now small-scale oil producers.

On the whole, it made me want to visit some places in Africa. There’s a lot of freedom left there, from a certain point of view. Little chocolate plantations on little ex-Portuguese colonies, where their owners live out their lives doing more or less what they want, as long as they don’t piss anyone off by hurting someone. Not a bad gig…maybe I should consider working a year in Ghana or São Tomé.