China Finds Resistance To Oil Deals in Africa
From The New York Times
by Adam Nossiter
NIAMEY, Niger — In Niger, government officials have fought a Chinese oil giant step by step, painfully undoing parts of a contract they call ruinous. In neighboring Chad, they have been even more forceful, shutting down the Chinese and accusing them of gross environmental negligence. In Gabon, they have seized major oil tracts from China, handing them over to the state company.
China wants Africa’s oil as much as ever. But instead of accepting the old terms, which many African officials call unconditional surrender, some cash-starved African states are pushing back, showing an assertiveness unthinkable until recently and suggesting that the days of unbridled influence by the African continent’s mega-investor may be waning.
For years, China has found eager partners across the continent, where governments of every ilk have welcomed the nation’s deep pockets and hands-off approach to local politics as an alternative to the West.
Now China’s major state oil companies are being challenged by African governments that have learned decades of hard lessons about heedless resource-grabs by outsiders and are looking anew at the deals they or their predecessors have signed. Where the Chinese companies are seen as gouging, polluting or hogging valuable tracts, African officials have started resisting, often at the risk of angering one of their most important trading partners.
“This is all we’ve got,” said Niger’s oil minister, Foumakoye Gado. “If our natural resources are given away, we’ll never get out of this.”
Below Mr. Gado’s seventh-floor office, reached through a dark stairwell because there is no working elevator, his fellow citizens are living in mud-brick houses without electricity and washing their clothes in the river. Oil production in Niger began nearly two years ago but has yet to make a dent in living standards.
“We’ve got to fight to get full value for these resources,” Mr. Gado said. “If they are valued correctly, we can hope to bring something to our people.”
Seven hundred miles away in the oil-producing region, Chinese refinery workers and engineers massed boisterously at a crumbling and otherwise unused airport for their quarterly holiday flights out, one of the many costs that Mr. Gado said Niger, at the bottom of the United Nations human development index, could not afford.
A private auditor hired by Niger recently found bloated costs and unfair charges by the China National Petroleum Corporation, providing Niger with ammunition for its next round of tense negotiations in Beijing, Mr. Gado suggested. Tens of millions of dollars have already been scored off the Chinese through such painstaking revisions.
Across the border in Chad, officials have taken a harder line with China National Petroleum, reflecting a growing confidence after 10 years of oil production that has brought the country new roads and public buildings, a revamped army, and a strengthening of the government’s grip on power, though little change in the country’s low poverty ranking.
The country’s oil minister shut down the Chinese operations in mid-August after discovering that they were dumping excess crude oil in ditches south of the capital, N’Djamena, then making Chadian workers remove it with no protection.
“Just dumped in the open,” said Antoine Doudjidingao, an economist who helps lead an oil watchdog group in N’Djamena. “This is a serious case, the first of its kind. You can’t just shut your eyes in the face of it. It’s a responsible reaction.”
Last month Chad’s oil minister refused to allow the Chinese to resume operations, even expelling the company’s local director-general and his assistant. There would be no resumption, the government said, until the Chinese built remediation and treatment facilities.
“Regardless of the actual spillage, which the Chadian government would normally not care much about, this seems to be a warning, which just goes to show that even the prototypical weak state in Africa can have serious leverage, and that African-Chinese relations are not as unbalanced as is sometimes argued,” said Ricardo Soares de Oliveira, a politics professor at Oxford and an expert on African oil.
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