Crude Continent: The Struggle for Africa's Oil Prize; Poisoned Wells: The Dirty Politics of African Oil

In This Review

Crude Continent: The Struggle for Africa's Oil Prize

By Duncan Clarke
Profile Books, 2008
720 pp. $69.95

Poisoned Wells: The Dirty Politics of African Oil

By Nicholas Shaxson
Palgrave Macmillan, 2008
288 pp. $26.95

Long a secondary player, Africa has seen its role in the global oil industry grow. The continent holds seven percent of the world's known reserves but is the least-explored region. It now accounts for 15 percent of U.S. oil imports, a figure that is increasing rapidly. The growing importance of African oil has resulted in a number of new books. These two are among the best, although they are very different. Clarke is an experienced insider in the African oil business, and he has written an exhaustive and well-informed sector study. The early chapters discuss the sector's dynamics not only in the oil-rich countries of the Gulf of Guinea but also in countries such as Madagascar and Kenya, which are at best marginal producers. The second half of the book methodically discusses the different oil companies working in the region. Clarke does not deny the region's political instability or governance deficiencies, which he views as structural characteristics of doing business in the region, but his optimistic account suggests that oil wealth can and often does improve things. The book would have benefited from more aggressive editing and some summary tables, but it is a remarkably complete and authoritative account of the oil industry in the region.

Shaxson's journalistic account of the seamier side of African oil is less informative, although still a good read. Shaxson devotes little time to the actual players in the oil sector. Instead, he advances and documents the now-popular view that Africa's oil is mostly a curse on its economy and people, as the wealth it procures has unleashed greed and venality and produced growing inequality and environmental disaster. Each chapter of Shaxson's account tackles one dimension of this negative assessment with evocative vignettes and revealing individual portraits. His chapter on Nigeria demonstrates how oil wealth worsened the country's authoritarianism and corruption by focusing on the life and times of the Nigerian musician Fela Kuti. Another chapter examines how oil has enriched Equatorial Guinea's president for life, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo.

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