Jammeh’s story is not different from what Liberia’s former president, Charles Taylor, experienced while negotiating for the production of Liberia’s oil. Two years after coming into office in 1997, Taylor ordered a comprehensive aerial survey of Liberia’s mineral resources to be done. The results were quite promising, giving the government the advantage of knowing what minerals the country had, where exactly they were located, and in what quantities.
A few years later, an American oil giant with levers in the top echelons of George W. Bush’s administration came by, wanting to exploit Liberia’s oil, but offering the country 5 cents in every dollar from the proceeds of the oil resources. President Taylor refused to accept the deal but the company pushed and pushed until Taylor was indicted in 2004 to stand trial at the Special Court for Sierra Leone for supporting rebels there.
The American oil giant then offered a carrot to Taylor. “If you give us the rights to exploit Liberia’s oil, we shall protect you from standing trial,” they told him. It was a tempting deal. Taylor’s trial was being pushed from behind the scenes by the US and Britain to get him out of power. He knew it. But the oil deal, at 5 cents in every dollar, was a bad one for the country, so despite his personal liberty now being at stake, Taylor still rejected the oil deal. “Then we can’t help you, Mr President, we can’t protect you,” the American oil giant told him.
The day Taylor narrated this story in court in The Hague, after the Special Court for Sierra Leone had moved its proceedings to the premises of the International Criminal Court, the place went deathly silent! The long and short of this story is that for rejecting the bad oil deal, Taylor could not be protected by the American oil giant, and today he sits in a British prison serving 50 years for what the court found to be “aiding and abetting” rebels in Sierra Leone.
In 1997, a not too dissimilar fate had befallen President Pascal Lissouba of Congo Brazzaville. When he came into office in 1992, having been democratically elected, he felt he had the mandate of the people of Congo Brazzaville to renegotiate the oil deal that Western oil giants had given the country under the previous government headed by a military leader.
The country was getting 15% from its oil resources. President Lissouba wanted this to be increased to 33%. All the oil companies were happy with the 33% except one French oil giant, which rushed to Paris and leaned on the government of President Jacques Chirac in a bid to force Lissouba to bend the knee.
In an interview in London in April 1998, President Lissouba told this writer that Jacques Chirac called him from Paris and ordered him to appoint the ex-military leader of the previous government as his vice president and head of the armed forces. This was, however, in contravention of the country’s constitution, and also Lissouba deduced that Chirac wanted to use the ex-military leader to checkmate him in the interest of the French oil company.
When Lissouba told Chirac that the constitution of Congo Brazzaville did not allow for what he was asking for, Lissouba said Chirac, now shrill on the phone, told him point-blank: “Chuck your bloody constitution in the dustbin!”
A few weeks later, Lissouba’s government was no more, overthrown in a “mini civil war” in which the rebel soldiers, allied to the former military leader, he told me, were supported by boats and other logistics offered by the French oil company. It came as no wonder that the rebels brought back the ex-military leader to head the new government, which went on to reduce the 33% oil deal that Lissouba had pressed the multinational companies to pay to 20%. Case closed!
Twenty-five or so years before Lissouba’s overthrow, a similar thing had happened in Niger in 1974, when the government of President Hamani Diori was ousted in comparable circumstances because Diori, a staunch pro-West leader, asked for a better deal for Niger’s uranium ore resources, which were being mined by a French multinational company.
Of course the official reason for the coup was corruption, but if you believe that, you might also believe that pigs can fly! Today, Niger is still producing uranium ore, which is still mined and purchased by the French, but the country has remained one of the poorest in Africa. A classic poverty-in-the-midst-of-plenty situation! This is why President Jammeh of Gambia says he has such a huge problem with the deals being given to Africa by the foreign oil giants. “Of course I do,” he said. “I used to tell the Emir of Qatar that I was competing with him because our countries were both small, but I didn’t know that they had such massive gas deposits which they are now exploiting, and using to improve their lives.
“But we, African leaders, deprive our people of benefiting from their God-given resources because we accept ridiculous deals that prevent us from earning enough to improve the lives of our people. This is the problem. Because if they come and give us 5%, and tell us how much the president is going to get, we agree! But the oil resources do not belong to the president, [they] belong to the people of the Gambia. So I will not accept 5% or 10% on behalf of the Gambian people. If I do accept that ridiculous percentage, what am I going to tell them? That we have 10% and they take 90%?”
Jammeh then did the sums and showed how unfair the 5% deals are. “Today,” he said, “in the case of oil, we know the cost per barrel is $100. So now if you tell me that there are, say, one billion barrels of oil in The Gambia, and you multiply one billion barrels by $100 per barrel, you have $100 billion. And what you used to drill your well and whatever, all the capital expenditure is less than $2bn, so why do you expect me to accept 10% or 5% when it is $2bn you need in maybe five or six years to recoup your capital expenditure. Why would they want me to accept 5% for 35 years, do you understand?”