US looks to African oil

Washington’s pointman on Africa is to meet Nigerian leaders on Thursday, making a high-level visit at a time when African oil is more than ever in the thoughts of US strategic planners.

Assistant Secretary of State Walter Kansteiner arrived in Abuja late on Wednesday and on Thursday he embarks on a packed schedule of meetings, starting with pro-western President Olusegun Obasanjo.

The US State Department described the visit, which comes directly after a trip to west Africa’s other oil giant Angola, as being dedicated to “counter terrorism, economic cooperation, democratisation, counter-narcotics and regional issues.”

But the security and development of Africa’s oil fields are also likely to be on the agenda at a time when influential voices in Washington are calling on the White House to make projecting its influence in the region a national security priority.

Kansteiner himself reportedly backs the strategy.

“African oil is of national strategic interest to us, and it will increase and become more important as we go forward,” he said earlier this year, according to US press reports.

In Angola, which analysts believe could increase oil production as it emerges from almost three decades of civil war and pip Nigeria to become Africa’s top exporter, Kansteiner told reporters Washington and Luanda have “very close relations in the domain of oil affairs.”

The events of September 11 and the continuing instability in the Middle East and Venezuela have convinced the United States it should look for new partners to ensure oil supplies.

Nigeria has the oil: it exports two million barrels of high quality, low sulphur crude every day, most of it to America.

But it lacks the other vital element it would need to become a trusted strategic partner: stability.

The damage Nigeria’s endemic poverty and lawlessness can do to the oil industry has been brought home again this month, when hundreds of village women have hijacked facilities run by US oil giant ChevronTexaco.

For 11 days an export terminal handling 400 000 barrels per day was paralysed by women demanding investment for their villages and jobs for their sons.

Protests are still continuing in the swamps of the western Niger Delta, cutting off a potential production of 100 000 barrels per day from the ChevronTexaco terminal.

Nigeria emerged from military rule three years ago, but Obasanjo’s civilian regime has yet to demonstrate it can get a grip on the huge problems facing Africa’s most populous country.

Local elections are theoretically to be held next month, but voter registration is not complete, violence at party primaries has claimed dozens of lives and some parties are calling for them to be postponed.

National and presidential elections next year could lead to further violence and uncertainty.

But despite the risks, some in Washington believe the United States is preparing to play a much bigger role in west Africa.

“The United States is on the verge of an historic, strategic alignment with west Africa,” says the Institute of Advanced Strategic and Political Studies (IASPS), a think tank that has mounted a high-profile lobbying drive in favour of African oil.

Nigeria is already the fifth largest exporter of oil to the United States and with 1,5-million barrels a day flowing into US ports, west Africa exceeds Saudi Arabia as a source of US imports.

The US Department of Energy estimates that 15,3% of US oil comes from Africa and that by 2003, US-owned firms will be investing $10-billion a year there.

By 2015 west Africa will represent 25% of total US oil needs and by 2020 will be exporting to it some 770-million barrels of African oil a year, according to official estimates.

Kansteiner is to leave Nigeria early on Friday for Washington. – AFP

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