I want to finish reading Blood Oil: Tyrants, Violence, and the Rules That Run the World, by Leif Wenar, in time for taking it out to Addis for Jamie, who will find it interesting. At times I found it an inspirational read, at other times it is infuriating. Why do I say that?
Well, the contents include an Introduction of 28 pages, followed by a 13 page chapter on background information, followed by a summary of the book which is 11 pages long. This is all before Part 1, and you keep thinking – just get on with it! Then there are long chapters which don’t mention oil at all, but are about the theory of international law, philosophy and human rights (the ‘rules that run the world’ of the book’s subtitle). I didn’t find these very informative, and they are full of boring repetition.
But also included are some revealing facts and perspectives. Wenar writes “What makes resource-funded clientelism astonishing is how very top-down it can be. As we’ve seen, resource rents can provide half, 80 percent, even 93 percent of government revenues. The regime gets its money directly from foreigners and so does not need the population for taxes. At the extreme, the people of the country rely on the autocrat for everything, and the autocrat relies on the people for nothing.” This is how many dictators manage to remain in power, and why democracy finds it so difficult to thrive in many parts of the world. As Wenar points out, in the West, rich people go into government, but in clientelistic countries, people go into government to get rich.
He cites various cases where separatist groups arm themselves from the spoils of natural resources (which usually, but not always, involves oil), and then rebel against the government (Indonesia, Nigeria, Iraq and Sudan), and often how foreign intrigue encourages ruinous civil war – the big example was Angola, which has large oil reserves. “At one point, Communist Cuban forces were defending American oil facilities, whose oil the Marxist-Leninist government sold to the Unites States, enabling that government to buy guns from the Soviet Union to fight American-backed rebels.”
One of the worst examples of all is Equatorial Guinea, where the ‘curse of oil’ has enabled the dictatorship of Teodoro Obiang to last for decades. A small number of people in Equatorial Guinea are immensely rich, while the general population there is mostly very poor and funding for education and medical services is almost non-existent. Who makes this continuing situation possible? Oil consuming countries acting through companies who pay for oil directly from the dictatorship. Wenar writes “Once the US government grants its persons the right to buy oil from Obiang, Obiang’s crimes become American law. The oil he steals in Africa becomes legally owned in America…” It is a very US-orientated text, but that doesn’t matter. You can substitute any country in the West and many elsewhere for the US in this instance.
Nowadays, we are often given the impression that the world is a terrible place, full of conflict and injustice. Well, to some extent it is – we are certainly more aware of conflict through our easy access to a plethora of media – but it’s not half as bad as it used to be, and I appreciated Chapter 9 of Blood Oil which pointed out that whilst in the first half of the twentieth century, tens of millions of people were killed in world wars; in the second half during the Cold War, proxy wars killed millions; in the twenty-first century the worst wars kill hundreds of thousands. Fatalities from armed assaults on civilians are down since reliable records have been kept. The average lifespan is up, literacy rates are at their highest, the percentage of the developing world living in extreme poverty shrank by more than a half from 1990 to 2010. Things could certainly get better, but trends are at least in the right direction.
I haven’t yet reached the chapters which explain how the West can lead a peaceful global revolution by ending its dependence on the authoritarians who currently control and benefit from oil, so I’d better stop writing this and get on with it.