Julius Maada Bio's Speech at the Internationa Economic Forum of Americas Annual Conference in Montreal
The Global Imperative for Poverty Reduction, Job Creation and Democratic Governance in West Africa: Implications for the Geopolitical Realities of World Energy Situation
Brigadier-General (Rtd.) Julius Maada Bio
An Address delivered at the Roundtable on Geopolitical Realities and Energy: Risk Zones organized by the International Economic Forum of the Americas, Conference of Montreal
12 June 2012
I want to thank the organizers of this conference for inviting me to speak to you this afternoon. In the interest of time, I will jump to the key hypothesis of my talk, which is that because of its proven oil reserves, West Africa will soon become a geopolitically strategic region for the West. This hypothesis is premised on the fact that long before the Arab Spring, the West had been pouring tremendous resources on maintaining peace in the Middle East in order to secure access to its crude oil supplies. This is in addition to the high foreign policy trade-offs in which Western governments find themselves embroiled in that region. These two factors have prompted the West to look elsewhere for new sources of crude oil to meet the ever-growing global demand.
West Africa has therefore become a prime target for filling that role. Compared to the Middle East, West Africa is emerging as a stable, low-risk source of high-quality crude oil, confirming the region’s strategic value in the global oil market. However, to fulfill this potential, the region must disavow its record of political repression and civil conflict. Therefore, in an era of increased global economic stresses, maintaining political stability in the region (through poverty reduction, job creation, social justice, and democratic governance) is in the joint interest of both West Africans and the West.
This strategic importance of West Africa, aided by new technology facilitating the detection and extraction of the region’s oil deposits and rising crude oil prices, has made oil exploration in the region economically viable. Consequently, many countries in the Gulf of Guinea (Sierra Leone, Liberia, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, and Burkina Faso) now have proven oil reserves that are either being currently exploited or at the verge of being so.
Additionally, West African crude oil has the following key advantages over Middle Eastern oil:
- West Africa’s oil reserves are mostly offshore, not onshore. Therefore, the risks they face from sabotage due to political instability are far less than in countries whose oil reserves are mostly onshore.
- Undersea pipelines are less exposed to sabotage from civil unrest than underground pipelines passing through many countries.
- Oil from deep-water rigs can be easily transferred to crude oil tankers for shipment.
- The strategic and geographical location of West Africa’s crude oil can actually reduce shipping costs relative to those incurred to transport Middle Eastern oil to Western markets.
- West Africa can be relied upon as a major source of oil supply to the West in the event of any uncertainty in the Middle East.
- Unlike crude oil from other regions, West African crude is of a higher quality by being light and having low sulphur content, making it less expensive to refine.
- Finally, China’s (and to some extent, India’s) insatiable appetite for raw materials and her vigorous foray into Sub-Saharan Africa in search of reliable, long-lasting resource supplies have made Sub-Saharan Africa, in general, and West Africa, in particular, a big prize in the geopolitical contest for natural resources between the West and the emerging powers of Asia—China and India, specifically.
Attendant Risks and Opportunities
Naturally, as the geopolitical importance of West Africa (as a source of low-risk, high-quality crude-oil to the West) increases, so do the inherent risks, especially when they are not managed properly. One such risk has been identified by economists as the “resource curse”–the empirical phenomenon of natural-resource endowed economies in the developing world growing more slowly than their less endowed counterparts. This has been explained by the fact that predatory governments in resource-rich, policy-poor developing countries tend to rely heavily on enclave mineral extraction activities for the bulk of their revenues, which are mostly misappropriated by the ruling class whilst the vast majority of the population wallows in abject poverty. Thus, control of governments in such developing countries is the single most entrepreneurial endeavor. And this has made the competition for power by various elite coalitions so keen that it sometimes sparks civil unrest, especially when elections are rigged to make it difficult to remove the incumbents from power.
So, while West Africa’s oil reserves give the region a potential for increased geopolitical prominence, it runs a grave risk of promoting political instability in the region if reforms are not made to promote good governance and reduce economic inequality. This could then ultimately reduce the attractiveness of the region to Western investors. Avoiding this risk requires cooperation from both West African governments and the International Community.
What the International and Regional Communities Should Do
Extreme poverty, high unemployment among the youths, rampant corruption, political repression, and income inequality are variously identified as the root causes of the region’s political instability. A policy reversal that ameliorates these problems should therefore enhance political stability and thereby give Western investors the confidence to invest in the West African oil industry. This requires that West Africa’s democratization process should be supported fully by the West because people are less likely to engage in insurrection if they know that they can remove non-performing leaders through the ballot box. In this regard, I must note that the recent conviction of Charles Taylor for his role in the Sierra Leone civil war, the indictment of Laurent Gbagbo for his in Ivory Coast’s post-election violence, and the recent conviction of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak by his people are welcome signs that the international community is no longer willing to countenance, let alone support, dictatorships and human rights abuses in Africa, in particular, and the developing world, in general. This should provide strong signals to would-be dictators that they stand to bear a huge price if they violate international human rights standards.
It is, however, not enough for observers from the International Community to jet into a country on Election Day, or only a few days prior, to certify the elections as free and fair just because they did not observe any untoward activities on polling day. Most times, the rigging is done well before Election Day. And because the bedrock of democracy is the right to vote, that right must be protected at all cost. In this regard, it is not just the fairness of the poll that matters; the attendant conditions are just as important, for elections are only as good as the conditions in which they are held. Therefore international observation should cover not just the day on which the poll is held but the entire electioneering process beginning with the registration of voters through to the announcement of the poll results.
Effort must also be made to ensure that the state’s information infrastructure is fairly accessible to all political parties so that they can help voters make informed voting choices. Here also, Sierra Leone is a classic example of how rogue governments in the region can create unfair electoral advantages for themselves. For example, when my party, the SLPP, was in power, the current ruling APC was the first party to set up a private radio station to propagate their electoral program. No one harassed them, even when the station spewed vitriolic messages that edged on igniting social instability. Now in power, the APC are not willing to allow other parties the same freedom they had enjoyed while in opposition. On the contrary, under the watch of President Koroma’s brother, his (the President’s) close-body security officer, and the then Mayor of Freetown, APC thugs attacked and set our party headquarters ablaze—with the dual intent of intimidating our supporters and destroying our radio equipment. In addition to raping several of our female supporters, our party’s radio equipment was confiscated by the President’s bodyguard.
Spurred on by the then UN Secretary-General’s Executive Representative to Sierra Leone, Michael von der Schulenburg, an April 2, 2009 Inter-Party Communiqué was signed between the ruling APC and the SLPP in which both parties agreed, among other things, “to work together in establishing an independent public broadcasting corporation for Sierra Leone that operates on the basis of internationally accepted standards and gives equal access to the views and arguments of all political parties.” The Sierra Leone Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC) which emerged from this communiqué has sadly, but predictably, been essentially converted into a mouthpiece of the ruling party, thereby depriving other parties of equal access to the only national information infrastructure.
Political intimidation by the state security apparatus and ruling party thugs is another instrument that incumbents in Sub-Saharan Africa use to rig elections even before the first ballot is cast. Here, also, the record of the APC is most telling. However, there is not enough time to go into that here. I will only say that, in September last year, I was attacked and wounded in the head (in the country’s second city, Bo) by APC thugs on the first day of a Thank-the-People tour. The alleged culprits, who were charged to court, have yet to be tried. Meanwhile, my supporters have been put on trial for offences that were clearly trumped-up.
Thus, the role of the international community in continuing to help build and strengthen national governance institutions in West Africa cannot be gainsaid. More especially so for national institutions that dispense justice, supervise and conduct public elections, promote good governance, and promote respect for the rule of law and human rights. Their independence, impartiality and fairness must not only be commensurate with international standards and practice, they must be such that they inspire public confidence. Without such public confidence, no amount of foreign aid or investment and no degree of pious hope or sanctimonious lectures would make the difference between progress and instability. And without reform, guided by enlightened self-interest and liberal principles, the prospects for future crises, particularly in plural and divided societies in West Africa, will remain unlimited.
What West African Governments Should Do
In addition to enhancing political stability, “clean” elections (those that are devoid of illicitness) also tend to promote economic progress. This is necessary, though not sufficient, for reducing poverty and income inequality, providing education and healthcare, and reducing unemployment. All of these are necessary to give youths a stake in political and social stability, which are necessary for foreign investment.
As I have already noted, West African governments have not always used their incomes from natural resources on promoting human welfare. On the contrary, those in power corruptly appropriate these revenues to themselves. Consequently, they try to cling onto power at all costs in order to protect their unearned incomes from corruption. Meanwhile, the social inequities their policies create fan the embers of political instability and civil unrest.
Therefore, in order to promote political stability, without which West Africa’s potential as an important player in the global oil industry would not be realized, West African political leaders must be made to understand that they have a duty to promote good governance, “clean” elections, and human progress. They can do this by:
- Improving the health and welfare of the average citizen—not just those of the politically connected;
- Investing in education and healthcare as a means of increasing their countries’ human capital base and also reducing income inequality;
- Promoting rural development in order to reduce rural-urban income inequality;
- Recognising the crucial role of women in economic and human development and therefore promoting gender equality; and
- Promoting appropriate labor-intensive technology to reduce unemployment.