Back in 2000 construction began on a $3.7 billion pipeline running from oil fields in southern Chad to the Atlantic coast of Cameroon. An international consortium led by ExxonMobil and ChevronTexaco, promised the project would be a model for Third World energy projects, and would alleviate poverty in Chad and promote political reform and stability.
The controversial project proceeded with the enthusiastic backing of the do-gooders at the World Bank. “World Bank involvement will ensure greater public consultation, local participation, and attention to environmental and other socio-economic issues,” said a rosy statement released during the project’s early days.
The project was completed a few years ago and there appears to have been little or no poverty reduction in Chad since the oil began flowing, governmental corruption is worse than ever, and there’s been no political reform. Oh, and Chad is now at war as rebels seek to overthrow the government of President Idriss Deby, a warlord who seized power nearly two decades ago. “Tanks rolled through Chad’s capital on Sunday, turning the streets into a battle zone between the government and rebels littered with bodies,” said an AP story.
Curiously, news reports make almost no mention of the pipeline project, despite it being one of the biggest development projects in Africa in recent memory, the role of the two American oil companies, and the extravagant claims made by the World Bank. I don’t know much about the rebels and they surely aren’t angels. They are apparently backed by the government of Sudan and one would suspect that they’re itching to get their own hands on pipeline-generated oil revenues. But Deby’s corruption and the failure of the pipeline project to reduce poverty have probably helped them try to build support.
I traveled to Chad five years ago during construction of the pipeline, and even then it was clear that all the flowery rhetoric of oil companies and the World Bank was the worst kind of nonsense. Beneath the whole project was a fundamentally flawed premise: that providing billions of dollars in oil revenues to a corrupt dictator was somehow going to produce political reform and good government.
During that visit I spoke with Bank officials and oil company executives who said with a straight face that Deby would relinquish power since he wanted the “model” pipeline project to be seen as his legacy. Of course, Deby refused to step down as promised—and why would he? For years he’d presided over one of the world’s poorest countries with a national treasury barely worth plundering. Now, just as the oil money was getting ready to flow, he would pick an honorable legacy over cold cash?
The oil pipeline project surely isn’t the direct cause of the war in Chad, but the political instability that has followed in its wake is hardly a surprise.