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Ghana is poised to join the club of oil exporters. The country is expected to begin pumping by the end of the year. Recent oil discoveries off the coast of West Africa mean the U.S. is depending more on the region, as an alternative to Middle Eastern oil. But for Ghana, will black gold, as it's called, be a blight or a blessing?
NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reports.
OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON: When major crude oil deposits were discovered off Ghana's Atlantic Coast back in 2007, then-President John Agyekum Kufuor, couldn't hide his delight.
Then-President JOHN AGYEKUM KUFUOR (Ghana): With oil as a shot in the arm, we're going to fly. We're going to really zoom, accelerate. You'll see that Ghana truly is the African tiger.
QUIST-ARCTON: Kufuor pledged that Ghana would spend its oil money wisely and avoid the conflicts, civil wars and corruption that have blighted other African oil producers, like nearby Nigeria.
Bright Simons is a development and energy analyst at IMANI Ghana, a think-tank here in Accra.
Mr. BRIGHT SIMONS (Director of Development Research, IMANI): Ghana is not going to be another Nigeria. There are several countries in Africa that produce oil, but they don't produce it in sufficient quantities. And therefore, you haven't seen the same level of oil-induced social solidarity problems that you've seen in Nigeria and Angola and elsewhere.
QUIST-ARCTON: Simons warns Ghanaians must be realistic about the estimated $1.2 billion expected in annual revenues from 120,000 barrels of oil a day. He says newfound oil won't mean instant wealth for Ghana's aid-dependent gold and cocoa-based economy.
Mr. SIMONS: It is important that right from the very start, people get it into their psyche that this is not something that will transform local communities.
QUIST-ARCTON: Nevertheless, expectations remain buoyant, as Ghana prepares to start pumping oil.
(Soundbite of the ocean waves)
QUIST-ARCTON: Waves are breaking on the Atlantic Ocean, here on the shores of the fishing community called Apewosika. I'm here on the beach and, of course, you can't see oil being drilled here. It's about a hundred miles away from here offshore. But already the fishing communities here in Axim are saying that the discovery of oil is affecting their lives.
Apewosika villages sits upon a hill, overlooking swaying palm trees and gaily painted fishing canoes on the beach. Mike Abeka Aidoo, an outboard motor mechanic and fisherman, shares his concerns about oil.
Mr. ABEKA AIDOO (Fisherman): I'm a bit sad because the discovery of oil is going to help collapsing the (unintelligible) fishing industry.
Unidentified Man #1: (Singing in foreign language).
QUIST-ARCTON: Nearby, a couple of fishermen are singing and mending yards of blue nets. Fishmonger Elizabeth Asafua wants to know what the government and the oil companies are planning in the way of alternatives to fishing.
Ms. ELIZABETH ASAFUA (Fishmonger): (Through translator) If this trend of diminishing daily catches continues for our fishermen, then they should give us compensation so we can pay our children's school fees. They should create factories or industries other than fishing, and scholarships.
QUIST-ARCTON: Tullow Oil is the British company drilling Ghana's first oil in partnership with others. Kenneth McGhee is in charge of corporate social responsibility projects for Tullow Ghana.
Mr. KENNETH McGHEE: Our main focus, among many, is the fishing communities. Our job is to keep them safe, keep them away from the rig but also provide other opportunities for them to fish and do other things to maintain or improve their livelihood.
QUIST-ARCTON: McGhee says Tullow is trying to build trust with the local communities.
Mr. McGHEE: So we don't want people to stop fishing. There's plenty of fish out there, although I know catch is down, I think for many reasons. But I think there are things we can do together with expertise from inside and outside of Ghana to help the fisher folk continue to fish effectively and live in harmony with us.
Oil analyst Bright Simons points to other concerns, including possible security issues in turbulent West Africa.
Mr. SIMONS: If you have regional security dynamics that are not well dealt with - for instance, we know that piracy is increasingly a problem on the east coast of Africa - are we going to see that on the west coast of Africa? Possibly. If that mixes up with oil, what will we get?
QUIST-ARCTON: And there are other challenges. Parliament is currently drawing up oil revenue laws with talk of heritage funds to benefit Ghana's future generations.
In this classroom, teacher Godwill Okoh Adjei discusses Ghana's new bounty with the next generation.
Mr. GODWILL OKOH ADJEI (Teacher): Is the oil going to be a blessing or a curse Ghana?
Ms. ROSEMARY ARTHUR (Student): The oil is going to bring development.
QUIST-ARCTON: Oil will mean development, says 14-year-old Rosemary Arthur, shyly.
(Soundbite of song, "Yen ara asase ni")
Unidentified Children: (Singing in foreign language).
QUIST-ARCTON: And, as if mirroring her hope, the class sings "Yen ara asase ni" - "Our Own Precious Land," one of Ghana's favorite patriotic anthems.
Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Axim.
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