Ignore Oil States of Africa - at Our Peril

IT is a measure of our Eurocentric perspective that Africa seems all but forgotten in the swirling geopolitical and strategic considerations that are shaping our policy in the Persian Gulf. Yet it is no hyperbole - the closer we draw to war, the more our economic survival may depend on Africa. Why? Because Africa has oil, and lots of it. It is no surprise to learn that for the eight months prior to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, nearly 25 percent of US oil requirements came from the Gulf. What is surprising is that 20 percent of our average daily import of l8.5 million barrels of crude oil came from Africa. In fact, the United States imported more oil from Nigeria and Angola than it did from Iraq and Kuwait. Nigeria, which sells the United States 899,000 barrels per day (b.p.d.), is the fourth leading supplier of oil to this country, significantly ahead of our neighbor Mexico which provided 742,000 b.p.d., and barely behind Canada's 915,000 b.p.d.

Before the invasion, Iraq only sold the US an average of 698,000 b.p.d., and Angola, with average shipments of 264,000 b.p.d., provided twice as much oil to the US as did Kuwait, which supplied 106,000 barrels. Though the White House refuses to recognize Angola, 80-90 percent of that country's oil production is exported to the US. Africa's other major suppliers of oil to the US are Gabon, with 70,000 b.p.d., Zaire with 20,000, and Cameroon with 19,000. With recent discoveries in Nigeria and off the coast of Cameroon and Angola, many experts predict that Africa could provide the United States as much as 4.5 million barrels per day - over half of our daily need - by the end of the century.

Clearly, Africa is as significant as the Middle East, yet little attention is devoted to Africa's importance. With the ongoing crisis in the Gulf, Africa has increased its US shipments, which means that any disruption of oil deliveries from the continent, particularly Nigeria, and the US faces calamitous economic disaster.

For its part, Nigeria is in the midst of a difficult transition from military rule to democracy. The northern portion of the country is Muslim and dominates the government and the Christian south. Religious tensions erupted last April when President Ibrahim Babangida just escaped assassination in a major coup attempt by alleged Christian elements of the army. The effort of West African states to resolve the Liberian issue gave Babangida an chance to dispatch 3,000 of his restive troops to Monrovia, but dissension continues in the army.

While the Nigerian government has deplored the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, backed UN resolutions and called for the removal of Iraqi troops, the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs in Nigeria criticized the American military buildup in the Gulf and demanded the withdrawal of US troops from Saudi Arabia. More ominously, in September the American Consulate in the city of Kaduna was attacked by what appeared to be an organized crowd of 1,000 demonstrators shouting anti-American slogans and accusing the US of soiling Islamic holy places.

Should war break out in the Gulf, the ramifications are incalculable in Nigeria, particularly if Saddam Hussein is successful in characterizing it as a jihad or holy war. Not only would Nigeria be affected, but the Cameroon and the vast majority of Africa would be as well. With approximately 60 million Muslims in Nigeria alone, Islam is Africa's dominant religion. Events in the Persian Gulf, particularly a war which makes the pilgrimage to Mecca impossible, would reverberate across the continent. Although the reasons for their decisions were varied, when the Arab League voted on the Iraqi question, half of the African members either abstained, expressed reservations, were absent, or rejected the resolution to send troops.

In hearings before the Senate Government Affairs Committee, it was suggested a war in the Middle East could drive the price of oil to $100 a barrel. That scenario did not account for possible turmoil in Nigeria. In all likelihood Babangida, a consummate politician, will be able to shepherd his country toward civilian rule without things falling apart. But should there be war in the Gulf, as adroit as he is, Babangida may not be able to hold it together. The results would be catastrophic.

Given the enormous stakes, policymakers need to consider most carefully our cavalier approach to Africa and the cost of war in the Middle East. Africa is not peripheral to our interests. For some perspective: The stretch from Delaware to Maine gets its oil and gas from Nigeria. If things heat up in Africa, it may get very cold in New England.

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