In This Review

Untapped: The Scramble for Africa's Oil
Untapped: The Scramble for Africa's Oil
By John Ghazvinian
Harcourt, 2007, 336 pp
Oil and Terrorism in the New Gulf: Framing U.S. Energy and Security Policies for the Gulf of Guinea
Oil and Terrorism in the New Gulf: Framing U.S. Energy and Security Policies for the Gulf of Guinea
By James J. F. Forest and Matthew V. Sousa
Lexington Books, 2006, 344 pp

The Gulf of Guinea now provides almost a fifth of the oil consumed in the United States -- and that proportion is likely to rise in the coming years. West African oil is light, sweet crude that is cheap to refine; the west coast of Africa is considerably closer to U.S. markets than most of the alternatives; and since most of it is offshore, West African oil is presumably less affected by political instability than is oil in other regions. There is just one small problem: the West African oil-producing states are among the world's most corrupt, incompetent, tumultuous, and undemocratic.

Ghazvinian provides a readable survey of African oil that combines vivid descriptions of his travels to several of the worst-governed oil producers in the region with a broader discussion of the economics and geopolitics of oil. The book starts with a sharp portrait of Nigeria's oil-producing region before describing the industry in Angola, Chad, Equatorial Guinea, and São Tomé. That oil is a curse for every one of these countries is an inevitable lesson of this book, which illustrates how great oil wealth has failed to bring economic development and seems to have exacerbated political decay, corruption, and conflict. Meanwhile, Ghazvinian's description of the West's efforts to regulate the sector and steer oil resources into poverty alleviation is discouraging.

The informative volume by Forest and Sousa is more upbeat and prescriptive. It notes the same facts about bad governance in the region but argues -- based more on hope than evidence -- that there have been improvements. Much of the volume is directed at U.S. policymakers; it recommends measures to promote the security of regimes in the region while also pushing for economic development and democratization. The authors argue that addressing internal security is a prerequisite for these other two objectives and that the United States has a strong interest in the region's political stability. True enough, but the book largely underestimates the extent to which these different objectives are at odds with one another: strengthening the security apparatus in a military dictatorship will buttress an authoritarian status quo that has long been incapable of promoting economic development.