Untapped: The Scramble for Africa's Oil

When ExxonMobil Came to Chad
Opinions about events beyond our borders.
April 5 2007 7:28 AM

Untapped: The Scramble for Africa's Oil

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In 1996, ExxonMobil discovered between 800 million and 1 billion barrels of oil in the Doba basin of southern Chad. Chadian crude is of the heavy and sour variety that fetches low prices on the international market, and the country's landlocked geography adds formidable transportation costs to any venture. Besides, with civil war and political instability a fact of life from 1965 until the early 1990s, there was never much chance of Chad's oil industry getting off the ground. In 1996, however, there seemed to be just enough oil in Chad, and nearly enough political stability, to justify giving the country another look. ExxonMobil began to examine financing and feasibility options, setting into motion what would become one of the most extraordinary chapters in the history of African oil exploration.

N'Djaména, Chad—Disagreements between multinational corporations and destitute African villages often turn into a needlessly polarized ideological battle between proponents and opponents of globalization and free-market capitalism, or into an oversimplified David and Goliath tale. I wanted to see for myself the situation around the Doba basin and whether critics were justified in heaping so much blame onto ExxonMobil. Getting there from N'Djaména, Chad's capital, was going to be a challenge, though. In 2005 Chad's national airline, Toumaï Air Chad, was down to one functioning plane, a battered 737 servicing six African destinations and one domestic airport in the east of the country, as well as the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. Until such time as it was able to purchase a second aircraft, Toumaï regretted that it would not be providing service to southern or northern Chad.

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I asked about how I might make the journey by land, but received bewildered looks and was sternly warned that it would be a rough and dusty 200-mile trek across the blazing heat of the Sahel, and very much not for the faint of heart.

None of this was a problem for ExxonMobil staff, of course, because the company had its own airport and chartered a fleet of planes making regular flights between N'Djaména and Doba. In the early days of the project, when it was still being hailed as a "model" for African oil exploration, Exxon had been happy to fly journalists south, and had bent over backward to set up tours and meetings with local managers. But this was 2005, and ExxonMobil had been burned by a slew of negative stories in the international press. So, when I approached the company six months in advance, I was told by its Houston PR department that arranging a flight would not be possible. Even if I somehow made it to Doba under my own auspices, in fact, it would not be possible to have a tour of the company's project in southern Chad. Nor was I allowed to speak to Exxon staff at any point while I was in the country, not even off the record. Any questions I had would be answered by Houston.

Given the cost of hiring a car and driver for the two-day round-trip south—at least $200 a day—public transport rapidly emerged as my only option. At the crack of dawn one Thursday, I watched as my suitcase was lifted to the roof of a beaten-up old Land Cruiser and steadily squashed under a small mountain of accumulating bags and boxes and threadbare trunks. Off to one side, a young man unscrewed the vehicle's fuel cap and stuck a piece of rubber tubing into the tank, to the other end of which he stuck a small plastic funnel. Out of nowhere, several glass jugs appeared, filled with gasoline, which the man steadily poured into the funnel, taking great care not to spill any.

It was as powerful an image as one could possibly ask for. Chad may have recently joined the ranks of the world's oil-producing countries, but the country still lacks a downstream oil sector, and its citizens have yet to see what an actual gas station looks like. There is no refinery for Doba crude to be sent to, so every last drop of Chad's crude goes straight into the ExxonMobil pipeline and straight onto supertankers parked off the Cameroonian coast. There are few cars in Chad, but those that exist (almost all of them taxis or official vehicles) operate not on Chadian oil but on Nigerian gasoline. The refined product is driven—often smuggled—across the border, and sold from glass jars in shaded spots along the side of the road that look like little more than American-style lemonade stands.

Inside, the Land Cruiser had been converted into a sort of cattle truck, with two hard wooden benches running along its length. Ten people had already squeezed in, along with more belongings, and were looking intensely uncomfortable in the scorching early-morning heat. I plumped for a $25 "first-class" ticket, thinking that sitting in the passenger seat and facing forward would make the ten-hour journey more pleasant. What I had not been told was that a first-class ticket entitled me to only half the passenger seat.

It was just as well, then, that the vehicle broke down at least eight times during the journey. (I lost count after the seventh.) The passenger seat was tilted so far forward that my neighbor and I had our arms pressed against the dashboard for the duration of the journey, and every time the driver pulled over to fiddle with the fan belt, it was a welcome chance to step out into the blessed relief of the 120-degree heat and walk around among the camels and stray goats and round mud huts, silently cursing ExxonMobil until feeling returned to my arms and legs. On the way back, two days later, I treated myself to both first-class seats. After all, it was my birthday.

***

"The government ignored all the negatives. They told the population that oil would be a paradise, that it would solve all of their problems. But we saw the experience of Nigeria and others and wanted to ensure that the population was informed about the reality." It was my understanding that I was speaking to Nadji Nelambaye, coordinator of the local coalition of NGOs, but since it was pitch-black and I was using my lone candle to help me take notes, I could have been talking to anybody.

Like more than 98 percent of Chadians, the residents of Moundou have no access to electricity. In one of the extraordinary ironies of Chad's oil boom, this energy-rich country's dilapidated grid provides, at the best of times, a mere 20 megawatts of electricity. The world's newest oil producer literally cannot keep the lights on. Moundou, like most of Chad, spends its nights in total darkness, save for the flickers of gas lamps and candles, or the headlights of passing motorcycles.

Meanwhile, in nearby Kome, the twenty-five-mile-wide ExxonMobil facility lights up the night sky for miles around thanks to its state-of-the-art 120-megawatt generating plant. Not only does the ExxonMobil compound produce six times as much electricity as the entire Republic of Chad, it likely produces as much as the entire Sahel. So bright is the light from Kome, and so dark is everything around it, in fact, that the facility is visible from outer space.

Moundou is very much not Chad's answer to Port Harcourt, Nigeria. ExxonMobil has confined its operations to the fenced compound at Kome, some fifty miles away, and Moundou has continued to languish as a dusty backwater, where even the town's three hotels no longer bother to repair their broken generators. Moundou's only claim to fame is that it is home to Chad's national brewery, where the bottles of bland Chari beer famously continued to roll off the assembly line throughout the darkest and most savage years of civil war. According to the World Bank, Moundou, a town of 96,000 people, has only two doctors.

Given the oppressive heat and the lack of light, Nadji suggested we reconvene early the next morning for a trip to Kome. But when morning came, I wondered how I would find Nadji, since I still didn't know what he looked like. Fortunately for me, in Moundou I stuck out like a black man at a Merle Haggard concert, and Nadji quickly found me wandering a deserted street at the edge of town, looking for his office.

On the drive to Kome, Nadji rattled off some of the problems that ExxonMobil's presence was believed to have caused. The coalition had done a study showing that eleven primary schools had closed, thanks to teachers leaving to find more lucrative—if temporary—jobs with ExxonMobil. Worse, many girls had given up on school entirely to work outside the oilfields as prostitutes, and the rate of AIDS infection was increasing. Young men, meanwhile, had abandoned their fields to look for work at ExxonMobil, resulting in a decline in agricultural productivity and an accompanying rise in the local price of millet—a situation exacerbated by the increase in demand for grain from people working for ExxonMobil. The government had not stepped in to regulate prices and local people had suffered hardship.

As we drove along the red-dirt track, enormous construction trucks loaded with Filipino laborers passed by every few minutes, kicking up blinding clouds of dust and diesel exhaust. Nadji didn't miss a beat. He explained that the coalition had tracked an increase in respiratory illness among the local population since the project began and had pressured ExxonMobil to address the problem. Exxon, he said, had refused to pave the road, claiming that was the government's job, and had instead watered the road to keep the dust down. In the desert heat, though, the water evaporated quickly. Within hours, the dust was back.

Nadji continued describing the social disruptions the coalition was tracking. During the construction phase of the project, he said, ExxonMobil subcontractors had trained locals to act as paramilitaries. Since the construction ended, however, most of the locals had gone back to their villages and, unaccustomed to making ends meet without the generous salaries paid by the contractors, had put their newfound skills to use in aggressive acts of criminality and banditry. Divorce rates had also gone up, thanks to displaced farmers spending their compensation packages on prostitutes. "If you take a poor, rural man who has never seen more than $5 or $6 in his hand and you give him $2,000 in compensation, he is likely to spend it on beer and girls." With less land to go around since ExxonMobil moved into the area, farmers and animal husbandmen had also been driven into nasty conflicts.

The list of complaints went on and on.

After an hour, we arrived outside ExxonMobil's Kome operating base, and I immediately saw why the company had become reluctant to bring journalists here for show-and-tell (as well as why Nadji was so keen for me to see it). On one side of the road, surrounded by a high perimeter fence, was the base—an ultramodern, air-conditioned facility with its own airport, powered by four electric turbines and protected by armed guards. A sign next to one of the buildings welcomed visitors to Kome, which it declared, in a chunky typeface reminiscent of Midwestern roadside advertising, to be "Home of the World's Greatest Drilling Team." On the other side of the road was a stinking, ramshackle slum, which a far-more-modest road sign identified as "Atan."

Ten years ago, neither Atan nor the Kome base existed. The area had been home to a few hundred pastoralists living in clusters of round mud huts. But when Exxon began building Kome, word got out that the company would need a few hundred laborers, and people poured in from miles around. They stood for hours and days outside the perimeter fence, in the hopes of snapping up even a temporary job. Days turned into weeks and months, and a small squatter camp grew up outside Kome. The presence of large numbers of young men attracted girls, who had heard there was a good living to be made as prostitutes. Before long, the girls were coming from neighboring Nigeria, Cameroon, and the Central African Republic, and even Ghana. As the squatter camp grew, its residents nicknamed it the Quartier Attend, which roughly translates as "Waitsville" or "Waiting Town." The place where people wait.

With its transient population of young laborers and girls from all over West Africa, Quartier Attend developed a reputation as a place of loose morals, and people began referring to it jokingly as Quartier Satan, or "Devil-town." (In French, Satan rhymes with attend.) At its height, it was home to as many as 17,000 people, many of them from as far away as Morocco and the Philippines. Some worked as drivers or security guards for ExxonMobil, but others were just attracted by the dynamic economy. Families began settling in Attend, and small primary schools were set up, along with a mosque and a church, and even a small cinema. The village elected a chief and got itself officially recognized by the government as a town on the map of Chad. And, in a touching display of civic pride, it asked to be called Atan, which, although pronounced in the same way as Attend, lacked the baggage of the town's dubious beginnings, and almost looked like an authentic, phonetically spelled African name.

Despite the veneer of respectability, Atan is an enormous festering embarrassment for ExxonMobil—a living, breathing metaphor for the failure of the Doba drilling operation to bring meaningful development to the people of Chad. On one side of the road, Exxon employees enjoy modern rooms, complete with private bathrooms, DVD players, and Internet connections. They are cared for in a modern clinic and can unwind on basketball courts, to which there will soon be added a tennis court and swimming pool. On the other side of the road, in a makeshift camp, some 10,000 people make do without clean running water.

When I began taking snapshots, Nadji quickly made me stuff my camera into my bag, warning me that I would get my film confiscated if I wasn't careful. ExxonMobil, he said, paid plainclothes "vigilants" to stop anyone taking pictures, even if the camera was not pointed at the Kome base. So we made do with wandering the streets of Atan, admiring the improvised shops and stalls selling everything from cigarettes to fried meat to a vicious home-brew called bili-bili.

Despite its schools and houses of worship, Atan has not entirely shed its sin-city image. Next to each other along the road, and within easy access of the base, are two "nightclubs." One, called Phoenix, is favored by the French workers from Kome, while the other, La Maison Blanche Number One (White House Number One), is staffed by English-speaking girls from Nigeria and Ghana and caters mostly to an American clientele. We stepped out of the sun and into the Phoenix and found it mostly empty. After all, it was still early in the morning. I noticed a passageway that led to a semiprivate spot behind the nightclub, where the girls would take their tricks for sex, and Nadji told me he had last been here with a French television crew who had come late at night and filmed illicitly for a documentary. Although Atan was a public space where, with the appropriate permits, any journalist ought to be allowed to film, ExxonMobil's influence in Chad meant that the extraordinary visual narrative of this town's coexistence with the Kome base could never be documented properly for a Western audience.

Nadji began to look a bit nervous and suggested we leave before our presence drew too much interest. We drove down the road a few miles to Ngalaba, one of three traditional villages that had become known as "villages enclavés"—enclaved villages. Ngalaba, along with nearby Maikeuri and Bendoh, was cut off from some of its traditional grazing lands by power lines and feeder pipelines when the Doba project got under way, and villagers say their livelihoods have been destroyed. ExxonMobil insists that its facilities pose no danger to the villagers and that they have been compensated for the loss of their arable land.

Ngalaba is a village of 1,125 people, led by a traditional ruler named Tamro, a quiet and thoughtful man in his late thirties or early forties, who at first seemed hesitant to talk to us. Speaking in the local Ngambaye language, which Nadji translated into French for me, Chief Tamro looked into the distance and admitted that he was "worried." He had noticed that the mangoes had failed to thrive this year, and wondered if it was because of the gas flare from a nearby well. He complained that ExxonMobil had left some of its exploratory wells unplugged, and that village livestock had fallen in. "We lost many animals that way," he said, before adding that Exxon had responded to their complaints about dust by coating the dirt road with molasses, which is toxic to goats and cattle. "I am very worried," he repeated, so quietly that we could barely hear him. "Honestly, I would rather they just found us another piece of land and we could all go there and leave the village." The men who had gathered around us looked genuinely saddened and disappointed by what they heard their chief saying. "We need to start over. There is no security here."

 "This is our land," a dark and round-faced young man named Judé piped up. "We've seen no benefit from it. We lost our land and have received nothing for it. At first they said they were going to build hospitals and dispensaries here. But they've done none of that." Exxon, Chief Tamro explained, had offered the village its choice of five options: a school, a well, a granary, one kilometer of paved road, or a marketplace. The villagers chose the school, understanding that it would house six grades, but ExxonMobil built them a two-room schoolhouse instead. "Let me ask you something, sir." The chief tried to contain his frustration. "If I take something from you, should I then come and dictate the terms of my compensation to you for the loss? Surely it is for me to apologize and ask you what I can do to make it up to you."

He pointed out a tiny, windowless concrete shed that stood out among the round straw and mud huts. "They told me that they spent 30 million francs [about $60,000] on that house, and that their workers were going to live in it. In the end I had to break the door down so I could sleep in it myself." The men all shook their heads. "I ask you," the chief said, "does that look like a 30 million–franc house? You know how much I could have done for this village with 30 million francs?"

John Ghazvinian has a doctorate in history from Oxford. Born in Iran and raised in London and Los Angeles, he currently lives in Philadelphia, where he is a visiting fellow at the University of Pennsylvania.

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