Oil clouds West’s dealings with African strongmen

IN power for almost three decades, the two African leaders brook no dissent, their elections are dismissed by most outsiders as a sham and both live in splendid isolation from the squalor of their subjects.


But the similarities

in this tale of two strongmen — Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo — end there. Analysts say the reason is oil.


“I am sure that if Zimbabwe had oil the West wouldn’t be so fussed about its electoral cheating and land seizures,” said Tom Lodge, a professor of peace and conflict studies at the University of Limerick in Ireland. “Zimbabwe is grim economically and people get tortured in prison but the state’s behaviour is still regulated by rules to a certain extent. It doesn’t compare in nastiness to Equatorial Guinea,” he added.


Mugabe, a hero of the African independence movement, is a pariah in the West. Lambasted for his human rights record, disputed elections, seizure of white-owned farms and imploding economy, Mugabe and his top officials are under travel and financial sanctions. Key donors have withdrawn crucial aid.


Obiang, who seized power in a coup in 1979 in which he murdered his uncle, rules over sub-Saharan Africa’s third biggest oil producer where US oil companies are the largest investors.


He was called “a good friend” by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during a visit to Washington in April, despite a State Department report in March condemning torture and rights abuses by Obiang’s government, and 2004 parliamentary elections widely denounced as fraudulent.


His country is in the midst of an oil bonanza but his people have grown poorer. The UN development index showed Equatorial Guinea slipped 12 positions to 121st spot last year.


Washington has called for reform but there have been no punitive sanctions and Obiang, although attacked by human rights organisations, generally escapes the opprobrium piled on Mugabe by the West.


“African oil producers are far more immune to Western pressure than are the resource-poor countries, which depend more on foreign aid,” said Nicholas Shaxson, a West African oil specialist with UK-based think-tank Chatham House.


Analysts say such diplomatic double standards on the world’s poorest continent undercut messages coming out of international gatherings such as the Group of Eight, which this week pledged in Moscow to keep sight of Africa’s woes.


G8 leaders have linked aid to African commitments to greater democracy and increased transparency. But in replays of the Cold War — when African dictators got support if they were a bulwark against Soviet influence — analysts say human rights can fall off the agenda if they conflict with geo-political priorities.


“It is like the 1970s and 1980s when as long as you were of strategic importance to the West then you could get away with murder,” said Irungu Houghton, pan-African policy advisor with aid agency Oxfam.


With crude prices soaring above US$74 a barrel amid escalating conflict in the Middle East, those strategic needs include securing reliable supplies of oil.


Equatorial Guinea is not alone. President Jose Eduardo dos Santos of oil-soaked Angola — like Obiang in power since 1979 — also stands accused of repression and graft on a grand scale.


The ruling elites of both countries have been accused by Western donors and human rights groups of siphoning off their swelling oil revenues, leaving next to nothing for the masses.


There has been some improvement on this score in oil major Nigeria which has made the transition from military to civilian rule — though a simmering conflict in the Niger Delta shows the flames of
resentment have hardly been doused there.


The current oil rally gives those who control the resource more leverage as they don’t need to go to the West cap in hand.


“There doesn’t seem to be much point telling Angola how to behave, as they will simply refuse to bow down to outside pressure,” Shaxson said. — Reuter.