FP: John Ghazvinian, welcome to Frontpage Interview.
Ghazvinian: Thank you.
FP: What motivated you to write this book?
Ghazvinian: The United States today is getting a growing share of its oil from Africa, yet the continent is still largely terra incognita for even the most informed Americans. I wanted to get under the skin of the African oil story a bit, and ask what the oil boom there means for America, for Africa, and for the world.
FP: Why do you think Africa is, as you say, largely terra incognita for Americans?
Ghazvinian: The United States just doesn't have the historical and cultural connections to Africa that Europe does. Couple that with the fact that the American press is generally less interested in covering - or able to cover - international affairs, and Africa often ends up getting short shrift. I think, though, that if we don't start paying attention to Africa, we will be paying the price. The Chinese, among others, are very switched on to the potential of Africa as a source of energy. Our own government, by contrast, seems institutionally distracted by the Middle East and other places.
FP: Overall, what does the oil boom in Africa mean not only for the U.S. and the world but also for Africa itself?
Ghazvinian: It means, first and foremost, that Africa is no longer just the world's chief exporter of tragedy. We have another reason to start paying attention to this continent, even if it's a selfish one. For Africa, frankly, the oil boom is probably not great news. At least thus far, it has proven more of a curse than a blessing for Africa's people.
FP: What are some of the biggest problems that Africa faces and what/who is responsible for those problems?
Ghazvinian: Poverty, poverty, and poverty. It is at the root of all Africa's problems, ultimately. Who is responsible? Just about everyone. African governments, western governments, the colonial legacy, international financial institutions, Africans themselves. Us, them, you, me. There are few true heroes and villains in this story. The whole world, on some level, shares responsibility for Africa's misery, and the whole world has the potential to help turn things around.
FP: I would stress that the world cannot help a continent until those who inhabit it transform cultures that are incapable of engendering progress, prosperity, individual rights and democracy. In my humble view, I think we need to reject the notion of collective responsibility -- in the context that somehow Westerners are to blame when non-Westerners shun the values, ideologies and institutions that are necessary foundations for a successful society.
In any case, can you expand bit on why the world is turning to Africa as a new source of oil? What do you think in general of this development?
Ghazvinian: African oil has a number of advantages from the perspective of consuming nations. It is light and sweet, making it cheap to refine. It is easy to transport to Europe and North America. Much of it (with the conspicuous exception of Nigeria) is offshore, making it less exposed to volatility and political risk.
In general, this is something that has an enormous potential to improve the lives of ordinary Africans. However, the experience thus far has shown that oil has proved more of a curse than a blessing in developing countries.
FP: Tell us some of the ways that oil has been a curse in developing countries. What can developing countries do to avoid this curse?
Ghazvinian: The oil curse, as you rightly imply, can take many forms. In Nigeria, it has resulted in an ugly insurgency fought over equitable distribution of oil wealth. In Angola, it has led to deep institutional corruption. In Gabon, it has made it difficult for the economy to diversify, creating a wealthy African emirate dangerously dependent on oil rents. In Congo-Brazzaville, it has fuelled a brutal civil war that killed 10,000 people. I could go on and on.
Avoiding the oil curse is a far more complicated question. Lots of very smart people have struggled with this question, and we still seem to be missing an adequate answer. Just look at the 'model' that was tried in Chad, with 80-plus percent of revenue supposed to go to priority sectors and so on. It sounded great, but it just didn't really work, did it?
FP: So a country that experiences an oil boom is not necessarily a country that prospers, right?
Ghazvinian: In theory, it should. But in reality, this has virtually never proven to be the case in the developing world. Africa's experience with oil, in particular, has tended more towards conflict, corruption, and economic degradation.
FP: Tell us one or two experiences you had on your travels that illuminates the significance of what is going on in your eyes.
Ghazvinian: Probably the most eye-opening experience was the sight of cars in Chad being re-fueled out of little glass jars of gasoline sold along the side of the road. Chad is one of the world's new oil-producing nations, yet there is not a single gas station anywhere in the country. I can't think of a more powerful image to illustrate how the benefits of Africa's new oil boom have yet to be felt by the African people.
FP: So what are some of your policy recommendations for Western governments in terms of dealing with Africa in the context of your topic?
Ghazvinian: It sounds vacuous to say this, but: engagement, engagement, engagement. We just don't pay enough attention to Africa, except as a charity case. This is wrong and patronizing and has to stop. This is a continent with tremendous potential, and one that could become a major economic, political, and cultural partner for the United States. But we have to start paying attention, and that is why I wrote the book. My hope was that, if nothing else, surely oil will help focus Americans' minds on Africa.
FP: Are you optimistic or pessimistic when it comes to Africa and its future?
Ghazvinian: It is hard to be optimistic sometimes, but one must. What I always tell people is that oil is not evil. Oil is just a substance that comes out of the ground. There is nothing inherently bad about it. It is what people do with it that creates problems. But more importantly, there are genuine success stories in Africa, and (a couple of festering conflicts notwithstanding) the continent is actually far less troubled than it has been in many years. It is also experiencing one of the most rapid growth rates of any region in the world. These are things that can be built on.
FP: What are some things Africans must themselves do to bring their continent out of its troubled condition?
Ghazvinian: The list is long, and the challenges formidable. To begin with, we have to be clear what we mean when we say 'Africans themselves'. If we mean African leaders, politicians, etc, then I would have to say, above all, that they must become champions of transparency and good governance. Far too much money is currently wasted in Africa by people who are incompetent, short-sighted, or just plain corrupt. But my other pet cause is regional integration, which I think is the way forward for Africa. There are real success stories in terms of fiscal stability if you look at Cemac, Ecowas, or the East African community. These are models for how African countries can work together for the benefit of their people, but more importantly, they are (to my mind) stepping stones along the road to a strong, viable, competitive African Union.
FP: John Ghazvinian, thank you for joining Frontpage Interview.
Ghazvinian: My pleasure.
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