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Chad Oil Boon
SEPTEMBER 2005
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Video: Why We Chose Africa

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Chad Oil Boon @ National Geographic Magazine
By Nick Kotch
Photographs by Pascal Maitre and Ed Kashi
In a continent where natural resources are often plundered to the detriment of ordinary people, impoverished Chad—the new oil frontier—could become a model of fairness.

With his white beard, ready chuckle, and roly-poly shape, Otto Honke could easily switch to an acting job as Santa Claus if he decides that a career in development work in Africa, stretching all the way back to 1978, has gone on long enough. We're driving together in southern Chad's oil region, his base since 2002, inspecting health, education, and water projects financed by ExxonMobil, Petronas, and Chevron in a consortium that is pumping close to 200,000 barrels of oil a day from 6,000 feet (1,800 meters) below our wheels.

Honke's employer, a German aid agency called GTZ, was hired by ExxonMobil to build neat blocks of classrooms in villages where children used to learn their lessons under straw roofs sitting on thick branches. Solar-powered water towers have replaced traditional wells and their brackish contents with clean, fresh water drawn from deeper beneath the sandy soil.

The idea crosses my mind on this dry and sunny day that my 58-year-old traveling companion is already a kind of Santa figure, making simple wishes come true in a poor corner of Africa and trying to ensure that—for once—the discovery of oil doesn't have to be a curse for ordinary folk.

But this notion fails to survive our bumpy ride around the villages; it collides, quickly and fatally, with the negative reputation oil has earned all over the developing world and nowhere more than in this neighborhood. After all, Chadians only have to look over their western fence to Nigeria or, a little farther down the road heading south, to Equatorial Guinea, Congo, Gabon, and Angola, to see why oil in Africa is associated with problems, never with solutions.
 
In PR terms the crude black stuff is a hard sell, and the village projects we are touring are, at the very least, an acknowledgement of that reality. Not that charity enters into the equation, because they were built as tightly calibrated compensation for the compulsory sale of land or environmental damage or nuisance caused by Chad's recruitment, in 2003, into the club of Africa's oil-producing states. The price of entry was four billion dollars, said to be the largest amount ever spent on a private sector investment in sub-Saharan Africa.
 
Chad's infant oil industry is effectively a joint venture among the oil companies, the government, and the World Bank. Boiled down, their mission statement is to extract oil profitably, to share the proceeds in a transparent and equitable way, to protect the environment, and to spend most of the government's share on reducing poverty. The big question is whether this original formula can transform one of the continent's classic basket cases into a functioning state, providing its nearly ten million citizens—whose annual per capita income is about $1,600—with a decent future after decades of civil war, injustice, and upheaval.

But pending the achievement of this ambition, gratitude is simply not on the agenda in the villages we visit. Distrust and unsatisfied expectations certainly are.
 
"They said the majority of us would get rich, but we have just got poorer. Nothing good has come from the oil," mutters Mbangtoloum Ngarambé, a lanky peasant farmer who grows cotton, rice, and millet in the fields around his village, Kayrati. We stand in the shade of a mango tree, watching women and children filling their enamel basins at the new water pump, which seems to me to be working pretty efficiently.

"Isn't that something good?" I ask, interrupting the flow of Ngarambé's displeasure and pointing at the contraption.
 
"Yes, that's good."
 
"And the new classrooms over there?"

"Yes, they are good."
 
Cleaning his teeth with a little stick, Ngarambé studies me out of the corner of his eye as we run through all the things that are lacking around here: a modern economy with jobs, a hospital close by, paved roads, security. We talk in French, a legacy of Chad's period as a colony of France until 1960. 
 
Playing devil's advocate, I ask him why he expects so much to be provided by foreign oil companies and so little by his own government. 
 
"You know very well that our government isn't going to do those things," Ngarambé replies.
 
I sense that another of the farmers in our group, a compact man called Hubert Nodjimbay, has marked me down as an oil company stooge. He chips in. 
 
"From five in the morning the village is invaded by dust from the trucks. The children are always coughing. But when you talk to Esso's people about it, they don't listen."

What does Esso, as ExxonMobil is known in these parts, say about that? That the company has never had to listen so intently and for so long as in southern Chad's Doba oil fields and in neighboring Cameroon, whose territory is crossed by the 663-mile (10,067-meter) pipeline that carries the heavy crude to an offshore loading terminal near Kribi. 
 
"There has been the most preparation of any oil project in Africa, we know that for a fact," Miles Shaw, Esso's public affairs adviser in Chad, told me, reeling off the stats. "The sheer mass of numbers—over 6,000 village meetings, well over 150 people employed in the environmental and safety program," he said, answering my questions in a prefabricated office block inside "KFC," Komé Five Camp, the consortium's town-size operations center. "It's partly because this project has been so unique. There were 14,000 land users in Chad and Cameroon to negotiate with and who were compensated individually." 
 
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