Angola's Oil Curse

The following article was adapted from a speech given at the Conference on Oil Revenues in Stavanger, Norway on Dec. 9, 2004.

In the past two years, Angola has been experiencing a military peace. For Angolans, the end of the 27-year civil war is, in itself, a miracle. War gave cover to the hunting down and destruction of Angolans' sense of humanity, to misrule and plunder of the country's resources by the rulers, their families, cronies and international associates.

This brief introduction to peace serves to highlight the continuation of war in the oil-rich enclave of Cabinda, which produces over 600,000 barrels of oil per day.

By the end of 2002, up to 30,000 government soldiers had engaged in full-scale military operations against local guerrilla groups (FLEC) and in widespread human rights abuses in villages across the province. Meanwhile, the oil companies, led by ChevronTexaco, kept their normal pace of activities in the enclave, as if nothing was happening, even though the major reason for that war was oil.

To this day, normality for ChevronTexaco means flying its staff by helicopter from Cabinda airport to its oil compound and back, a distance of about 25 kilometers. This is how foreign staff is protected from seeing the misery of the locals.

Normality, to ChevronTexaco, also means to contravene international treaties, such as the Ottawa Treaty that bans the use of landmines, and to which the Angolan government is a signatory. A minefield surrounds ChevronTexaco's 10km-long compound. It is easy to say that it's the government's responsibility to clear the landmines and abide by international treaties; while oil companies are there to make money.

Angola ranks among the three countries in the world with the most landmines and the highest rates of maimed people. While international non-governmental organizations keep promoting landmine awareness and clearance, ChevronTexaco protects its own minefield.

Before I touch on the issue of moral responsibility vis-à-vis corporate responsibility, I would like to mention the case of Soyo, another oil-rich town in northern Angola which I last visited two weeks ago.

Soyo is the second largest oil-producing region in the country, with an estimate of 300,000 barrels per day. On Jan. 7, 2004, at around 4pm, the villagers of Pângala who live next to the onshore oilfield 41, smelled an odor they described as "rotten eggs," and were stricken by sudden attacks of vomiting, diarrhea, blurred vision, chest pains and nausea.

Total, the oil company in charge of block 41, provided emergency help to take those most affected to the hospital. The municipal hospital treated 14 people, and the medical report confirmed the leaking of a toxic gas, "similar to hydrogen sulfate (H2S)." The report stressed that "it could be another toxic substance" and in that case "the company should inform the hospital."

Total denied the gas leak. According to an internal report I have obtained, the company suggests an epidemic was the cause of the health problems.

In the state's daily newspaper, Jornal de Angola, Total supervisor Justin Comba accused the population of faking the accident. "We believe it has been made up by the inhabitants of Pângala, who have always opposed the exploration of crude next to their houses," he said. "Because, if it had happened, our employees would have been intoxicated as well."

One of the victims, Bartolomeu Kuango, 22, said those responsible had compensated him with five cartons of milk. To date the clinic, which provides services to Total, has not disclosed Kuango's medical records to Kuango nor those of the others villagers who were affected by the accident.

In Pângala, gas wells burn 24 hours a day, right next to residential areas and farms. One oilfield is right in the middle of a soccer pitch, while some are just 12 meters from houses. Tree leaves are covered with thick layers of black smoke. Cashew trees, which were a major source of income for locals and an essential ingredient of local dishes, no longer bear fruit, and other trees and plants are following suit.

Local traditional leader Pedro Tona asks: "If the mango tree leaves are covered by black smoke, just imagine our lungs, what is inside us?"

It goes without saying how corrupt the Angolan government is. It is important to point out the ongoing complicity of oil multinationals in helping to maintain the status quo.

Hence, I note the difference between corporate social responsibility, which becomes a public relations exercise to please distant Western public opinion and stakeholders, and the companies' moral responsibility. How can we move forward the issue of transparency, good governance and corporate responsibility in a serious manner, in a country where the value of human life can amount to nothing more than five cartons of milk?

Is it just that Angolan government officials despise their own people? Or is it due to people's ignorance or passivity? Who are the main beneficiaries of the plunder and the absurdity of life in Angola? Certainly, the oil multinationals top the list, along with the Western banks that hide the money stolen from Angola and other African oil-producing countries.

What's the solution?

In my view, in the case of Angola, it is fundamental that value of human life be central to any political, social and economic discussions. First and foremost, it is imperative to reform the legal system to establish the rule of law as the main pillar of the Angolan State.

These tasks must be undertaken by Angolans themselves in order to clearly define how we want to peacefully coexist and evolve as a nation. By embarking on this path, Angolans might be closer to an effective and peaceful social revolution that might determine the change of mindsets and prepare the country for better rule by more concerned and humane leaders.

Western governments could do more by having coherent discourse and practices regarding human rights, transparency and good governance in Angola. I would say to these countries, why don't you put aside your divergent oil and business agendas for a moment and unite on a political and humanitarian quest to help Angolans unite around the establishment of a true democratic state?

You should also help your companies to be socially responsible by publishing information how much they contribute to the Angolan economy.

In terms of the Angolan government's role, how can there be transparency and good governance without the rule of law?

There cannot be transparency without the disclosure of all state accounts, including oil revenues, which the government has refused to do since independence in 1975.

Recently, the Provincial Government of Cabinda took the courageous step of publishing its expenditure (with no information about how this relates to its budget), which showed just how resources are wasted. In 2003, it spent US$2,399,998 in Christmas gifts and US$1,820,744 to buy cars from contracts totaling US$6,011,000.

The local public purse coughed up US$120,000 to mow the tiny lawn of the governor's residence, US$449,000 in furniture for the local government's office, US$80,000 in toys, US$85,000 for Miss Cabinda and, guess what? The authorities disbursed only US$40,000 to support the communes and US$87,000 to lend a hand to the three municipalities of the province.

This is a message for the international institutions eager to inject diplomatic and financial oxygen into the lungs of Angola's corrupt and venal leadership. The rulers' grip on power is dependent on oil revenues, which accounts for more than 80% of the country's income, to maintain the patronage system. The international institutions must insist that this system ends and the money is managed transparently for the good of the people.

Finally, a message to the multinationals:

  • ChevronTexaco, clear the landmines that surround your compound, as a moral and legal obligation and as a sign of respect for the tens of thousands of Angolans maimed by these banned weapons.

  • Total, provide decent medical assistance to the villagers living close to the onshore oilfields, compensate them for their losses; put signs and train the villagers on the hazards of the oilfields and burning gas wells next door to their houses. Show some respect for their lives, as a gesture of good faith.

  • To all companies, wherever you are extracting oil in my country, make sure people are not against you as a consequence of the impact of your operations in increasing their suffering. Give people information about what you pay to their government.

  • Be prepared to listen to what local communities have to say, for one day you will need them to understand your position and investments in their land and in their rightful resources.

Oil companies must apply the same code of ethics and standards in Angola as they do in Western countries. Those who want to continue to do business in Angola must do so transparently, otherwise they cannot claim they are free of corruption, or are not sponsors of plunder and misrule. There is no way for one to jump into such dirty waters and expect to come out clean.

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