Africa Update: Oil and Politics

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This week, we take a look at the role of oil in African politics. Plus, a former Congolese militia leader faces charges for recruiting child soldiers. For analysis of news and events from Africa, Farai Chideya talks with Edmond Keller, professor of political science and director of the Globalization Research Center on Africa at UCLA.

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

I'm Farai Chideya, and this is NEWS & NOTES.

It's Tuesday and time for Africa Update. This week, we take a look at how Africa's oil affects the cost of gas in America.

Plus, a former Congolese militia leader goes on trial; the charge: recruiting and training child soldiers.

For more we've got Edmond Keller. He's director of the Globalization Research Center on Africa at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Welcome, professor.

Dr. EDMOND KELLER (Professor of Political Science and Director of Globalization Research Center on Africa, University of California, Los Angeles): Thank you. I'm glad to be here.

CHIDEYA: Yes, I'm glad to have you right here in the room with me.

Now, in the past two weeks, the average price for a gallon of gas in the U.S. has jumped to more than $3. The cost of a barrel of oil was nearly a hundred dollars. Mideast oil might come to mind, but Americans also used millions of barrels of oil imported from Africa every day, so what percent of U.S. oil consumption comes from the continent?

Dr. KELLER: Well, presently, it's about 17 or 18 percent, and that tops the Middle East oil that we import which is about 16 percent.

CHIDEYA: What regions, what nations are we talking about from Africa?

Dr. KELLER: Well, for the most part, we're talking about states that border the Gulf of Guinea in West Africa although there have been rich oil deposits discovered in Sudan and in Chad, but we don't do business in Sudan because there are sanctions against that government. We also get some oil from Algeria, and Libya has deposits as well.

CHIDEYA: You mentioned Sudan. China has not been shy about going to them for oil, have they?

Dr. KELLER: Not at all. As a matter of fact, China imports about 40 to 50 percent of its oil from Sudan right now.

CHIDEYA: Now you talk about something that you termed the resource curse. What's that?

Dr. KELLER: Well, the resource curse has to do with the boom of some discovery of mineral deposits such as oil and natural gas. And what's happened in the past is that countries that have such a boom tend to neglect other sectors of their economy such as agriculture. And in Africa, that's critical because in Africa, the population growth outstrips agricultural production, and there's always a need for importing food. So the curse has to do with that neglect of other sectors of the economy.

CHIDEYA: So it sounds like you're saying that people who are in these oil-rich nations may not actually see a lot of that wealth.

Dr. KELLER: Absolutely, they won't. Oftentimes what happens is if there's a certain amount of corruption - official and unofficial - some political officials tend to scrape off the profits from this oil in sort of a rent-seeking kind of behavior. And, of course, they don't tax their citizens very heavily, so the citizens don't have leverage against the government to make them behave more responsibly.

CHIDEYA: So, who then gets the money?

Dr. KELLER: Well, the money goes to corrupt politicians and in places like the Niger Delta right now. There's a great deal of political-slash-criminal activity related to the oil production in the Niger Delta. There are groups that claim to be fighting for self-determination, but at the same time, what they do is tap into these oil pipelines, skim off oil and - you know, last year they earned about $1.5 billion in this way, and they take this money and they pump it into the acquisition of more and more weapons, fast boats that operate on the high seas, and in that way they are able to kidnap oil workers and people involved in that industry, but offshore.

CHIDEYA: What comes to mind for me is the whole idea of conflict diamonds and it sounds as if so many of the resources on the continent of Africa become embroiled in these contests for power.

Dr. KELLER: Oh, absolutely. It's about power, but it's also about economics and sort of a economic aggrandizement, and particularly in those enclave economies such as oil, such as coltan, such as diamonds, and even gold.

CHIDEYA: I want to move on to another topic. Last week, the International Criminal Court announced that Thomas Lubanga will stand trial in March. Now, he's a former militia leader in the Democratic Republic of Congo who allegedly recruited and trained thousands of child soldiers. This is going to be the International Court's first ever war crimes trial. Lubanga has denied all the charges. How significant is this prosecution?

Dr. KELLER: It's very significant because once we get this - this court has been talked about for years and years and years, and was finally approved and created in 2002. There are a number of conflicts that have taken place in Africa which involve or have been termed crimes against humanity. We do have the International Criminal Court in the Hague right now where - not Charles Taylor - Slobodan Milosevic was tried, but this particular court is going to be directed more at these crimes against humanity throughout the world.

CHIDEYA: Now, specifically, what is Lubanga accused of?

Dr. KELLER: Well, he's accused of a lot of things. One, as you mentioned, recruiting child soldiers; that is soldiers for his militia who were under 15. He's been accused of massacres. Five - fifty thousand people had been killed in the past four years as the consequence of the activities of his movement, and there was one incident where - there was a massacre of 400 people: Some of the victims were murdered with sledgehammers, others were taken into captivity as child soldiers, but also as sex slaves, and he's done a lot of damage.

CHIDEYA: Now, in addition to this, there have been indictments for war crimes in Darfur and also with Uganda's rebel - Lord's Resistance Army. How effective do you hope or do you think this court will be in addressing these kinds of issues?

Dr. KELLER: That's a good question.

I just want to address one other thing about that Lubanga. The resource there in Eastern Congo is gold and that's driven a lot of what people see as ethnic conflict, you know, his ethnic group against others.

Well, how effective do I think this ICC will be. I think it will be effective at least in, you know, in that it will have a demonstration effect. There'll be countries which will still not be able to - or criminals who will not be able to be tried. Sudan, for example, the two individuals who have been indicted as well: One is a minister, a government minister and the other is a militia leader of the Janjaweed, but Sudan won't turn over either of these. The fact is, DRC is cooperating with the court, and, therefore, Lubanga has been turned over. And I'm pretty sure they'll beat the troughs of the LRA's individuals as well.

CHIDEYA: Well, Prof. Keller, thank you so much.

Dr. KELLER: You're welcome.

CHIDEYA: Edmond Keller is a professor of political science and director of the Globalization Research Center on Africa at UCLA. He was at our NPR West studios.

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