From Tue Mar 16 10:45:12 2004
Date: Mon, 15 Mar 2004 16:17:25 -0600 (CST)
Subject: [NYTr] Mercenary Intrigue & West Africa's Oil Curse
Article: 175324
To: undisclosed-recipients: ;

Mercenary intrigue spotlights West Africa's oil curse

By Ed Stoddard, Reuters, Environmental News Network, Friday 12 March 2004

JOHANNESBURG—Oil should have brought wealth and development to bitterly poor West Africa, but instead it has fueled wars, coup plots, and even mercenary intrigue.

Equatorial Guinea, an oil producer on the Atlantic coast, this week arrested what it called an advance party of 15 mercenaries, saying “enemy powers” and multinational companies had been plotting against the tiny state.

Two thousand miles away, Zimbabwe threatened to execute some 60 suspected mercenaries who authorities said had been on their way to Equatorial Guinea to join the plot.

Harare has accused U.S., British, and Spanish spy agencies of involvement in the alleged plot that could have been straight out of a Frederick Forsyth bestseller.

In Forsyth's novel The Dogs of War it was the discovery of platinum riches in a remote African country that attracted an army of ruthless mercenaries. In West Africa, it is oil.

The region is increasingly important to the United States as it seeks to reduce dependence on Middle East supplies, and Washington keeps close watch as governments rise and fall.

The facts are often as murky as the state finances of some oil-rich African states, but analysts say one thing is certain: Black gold can often attract trouble.

“Oil has historically been a cause of coups and conflicts in the region. It does bring out the worst in people,” said Teju Akande, an analyst with U.K.-based oil consultancy Wood Mackenzie. “We are talking about countries that historically have been very poor, and oil is seen as fast money,” Akande said.

Oil-Powered Plots

The plot story swirling around Equatorial Guinea—sub-Saharan Africa's third largest oil producer—follows a coup attempt last year on West Africa's Sau Tome islands, which are expecting a gush of cash from crude. The region's giant and sub-Saharan Africa's biggest oil producer, Nigeria, has seen its fair share of coups and military takeovers since independence in 1960, with oil wealth the prize for the big men who seized the reins of power.

Angola, the region's No. 2 oil churner, suffered decades of civil war fueled by petrol and diamond dollars.

“Oil wasn’t the cause of Angola's conflict, but it gave the state the resources to fight for a long time,” said Keith Campbell, director of South African-based political consultancy Executive Research Associates.

Oil can also equip a state with the means to thwart coups—though this usually means it has spent far too much on guns and not nearly enough on its population. While oil has enriched a corrupt elite, it has stoked tensions with the have-nots.

“When you have big revenues coming in you can tighten your grip on power, as in Angola,” said one U.K.-based oil analyst.

Regardless of risk or controversy, major international oil companies cannot resist the lure of West Africa. And it has also become a region of strategic importance to the United States, the world's biggest oil consumer. In recent weeks U.S. generals have been criss-crossing the region on a mission they say is to seek ways of securing the unstable area against “international terrorism.”

Regional analysts say they cannot rule out U.S. military action in the future to secure the flow of West African oil to U.S. markets to ease reliance on the volatile Middle East.