April 6, 2007

Answers from Libreville

Katy says: This article, and the book that it refers to, are not to be missed. The author explores the current oil boom in Africa, and examines what newfound wealth is doing to some of its societies. The stories he tells feel all too familiar.

One passage was particularly illuminating. The author narrates what it is like to travel from Nigeria to Gabon. As you may know, Nigeria is a major oil producer, but its society is mired in poverty, social conflict and unrest. Gabon is a minor player in the oil industry, yet the standard of living is remarkably higher:

"Gone is the sight of legless cripples, crawling on their bare hands through lanes of traffic like teams of crazed, foreshortened gymnasts, competing for prizes of loose change. Gone, too, is the smoke billowing from mountains of trash that have gone uncollected so long that residents have set fire to them. And gone completely is the shouting and the jostling and the barely suppressed rage that seems to flow through Nigeria's streets like a howling flume of molten lava from morning to night. In its place is a distinctly languid holiday feel and an unmistakable air of genteel French provincialism left over from colonial times.


This outward splash of easy prosperity has much to do with Gabon's small population and sizeable oil reserves. In a country that is only a little smaller than Nigeria and pumps 265,000 barrels of oil a day, there are not 130 million people to share the oil wealth, but just over one million, making Gabon's per capita income of $6,500 one of the highest in Africa. (Compare it with Nigeria's $678.)"

People who have not studied Venezuela easily fall prey to the government's oversimplification of the reason for the revolution's apparent popularity, which goes something like this: before, a bunch of rich white folk - and foreign imperialists - were taking all the oil money for themselves, but now, Chávez is distributing oil wealth to the poor. While there may, perhaps, be an ounce of truth in that statement, the real story is that during the 80s and 90s, the price of oil plummeted while the population nearly doubled. The main reason Chavez is popular now is that the price of oil went back up again, and the government once again has the funds required to keep people satisfied. In that sense, Chávez is not doing anything that presidents between Gómez and CAP-I didn't try to do before. If, or rather when, the price of oil falls, his luck (and ours) will begin to run out.

The only solution to this trap is to move our economy away from oil dependency, something the Chávez government is not only not doing but, in fact, is actively fighting against. So while some of my countryfolk may now feel they are Gabonians, it won't be long before the natural cycle of oil prices Nigeria-izes them back to reality.