Untapped: The Scramble for Africa's Oil

Yes, We Have No Bananas
Opinions about events beyond our borders.
April 3 2007 1:36 PM

Untapped: The Scramble for Africa's Oil

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Libreville, Gabon—If you come to Gabon directly from Nigeria, you might be forgiven for thinking you have landed in an African version of the French Riviera. The road into the capital, Libreville, from the airport quickly takes on the august form of a grand boulevard snaking along the oceanfront, complete with lampposts and a grassy median decorated with the flags of neighboring countries. On one side as you head south into the city center are such smart, triumphal buildings as the presidential palace, the Hotel Intercontinental, and a handful of discreet embassy buildings. On the other side is nothing but the rhythmic lapping of shin-high waves and the muggy angel-hair embrace of a tropical breeze.

Gone is the sight of legless cripples, crawling on their bare hands through lanes of traffic like teams of crazed, foreshortened gymnasts, competing for prizes of loose change. Gone, too, is the smoke billowing from mountains of trash that have gone uncollected so long that residents have set fire to them. And gone completely is the shouting and the jostling and the barely suppressed rage that seems to flow through Nigeria's streets like a howling flume of molten lava from morning to night. In its place is a distinctly languid holiday feel and an unmistakable air of genteel French provincialism left over from colonial times.

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This outward splash of easy prosperity has much to do with Gabon's small population and sizeable oil reserves. In a country that is only a little smaller than Nigeria and pumps 265,000 barrels of oil a day, there are not 130 million people to share the oil wealth, but just over one million, making Gabon's per capita income of $6,500 one of the highest in Africa. (Compare it with Nigeria's $678.)

As if to reinforce the point, in the chic downtown of Libreville, there are white people everywhere. When the French colonial authorities left this part of Africa in 1960, thousands of functionaries and technocrats and oil-company employees stayed behind, happy to take advantage of the new government's palpable lack of hostility toward them. Today the French community is 10,000-strong in Libreville (a city of barely half a million people), helping to ensure that a portion of the posh Nombakélé district along the water remains a timeless re-creation of Nîmes or Avignon, with young women in summer frocks and designer sunglasses darting in and out of pastry shops.

My first duty, like any African traveler exhausted by the flies and the heat and the rusty Kalashnikovs of weeks on the road, was to myself. Within an hour of arriving in Libreville, I found myself, blinking like a newborn deer, in the air-conditioned aisles of the Score supermarket. Score is an old and shabby chain by Western standards, barely competitive in France in the age of the hypermarché. The Libreville incarnation would hardly pass for a corner deli in the United States today. But as far as I was concerned, it could have been the Galéries Lafayette.

Eyes bigger than my stomach, I surveyed the piles of refrigerated Brie and Camembert and Port Salut, the neat rows of jars sealed tight to protect the foie gras and goose-liver pâté inside, the shelves of Petit Écolier chocolate biscuits and Kinder eggs, and the separate counter where fresh baguettes and pastries were sold. In the fruit and vegetable section, there was no shortage of the produce integral to a European diet: tomatoes and cucumbers, parsley and broccoli, apples and oranges, and even several varieties of squash. What seemed conspicuously absent, however, were tropical fruit and vegetables—the yams, mangoes, and pineapples. Looking around, I couldn't even see any bananas. Perhaps they were sold out? Perhaps in another section?

No, sorry, came the smile and the shake of the head when I asked. "Pas des bananes." No bananas.

Well, no matter. Perhaps bananas aren't the kind of thing one buys at Score. Perhaps expats come here for their Lindt and Yoplait but buy their local produce at local markets. I ventured back outside, into the tomblike humidity of the February afternoon, to find one of the women carrying large plates of bananas on their heads who seem ubiquitous in southern Africa. But here, too, I was out of luck. The only street vendors in sight were the lumpen young men from Mali or Niger or the Congo who make up much of Gabon's unskilled workforce, and all they had on offer were fake Rolexes and snakeskin belts.

I soon learned that it is extremely difficult to buy a banana in Gabon. During a week and a half in the country, I feasted on the most delicately prepared beef bourguignon and rack of lamb, always served with haricots verts or gratinée potatoes. But never did I manage to find a bunch of bananas for sale.

This is not to say there are no bananas in Gabon. Quite the contrary—there are literally millions. About half the country's tiny population lives in Libreville, while most of the rest reside in three or four towns that dot the jungle interior. Where the population centers stop, there is nothing but miles and miles of misty virgin rain-forest, inhabited by gorillas and lizards and thick with banana trees. All one has to do is walk to the edge of town, into where the bush begins, and there is no shortage of banana trees to choose from. The country is bursting with sweet, soft bananas.

So what happens to them? The ones that are not picked by chimpanzees and baboons turn yellow, then brown, then black, and then fall to the ground and fertilize the jungle floor. Before oil was discovered in Gabon, the country was self-sufficient in bananas. By 1981 it had become almost totally dependent on bananas imported from neighboring Cameroon. One could not ask for a more vivid image to associate with the Dutch disease than that of a vast jungle nation where there is no one available to pick bananas off the trees.

And it's not just the bananas. In the early 1980s, when Gabon was at the height of its oil production, and globally it seemed that cheap oil was a thing of the past, the country imported a staggering 96 percent of its food. Even eggs were flown in, as no one in this cash-flooded nation could be bothered to raise chickens. Today Gabon is dependent on imports for 60 percent of its food needs—still an uncomfortably high figure in a country where the oil is beginning to run out.

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.