The negotiations seem to have been especially protracted in Danmadja, a settlement of 492 souls near Komé. In fact they were still dragging on in a desultory way when our masters-of-the-universe convoy of four-wheel drives rolled into the village, which consists mainly of thatched-roof huts made of brown mud bricks. Because construction of oil-field facilities had obliterated some of its fields and wild fruit trees, Danmadja was awarded collective compensation as well as payments to individuals. After some debate the people had decided they wanted a covered market to sell their produce—rice, peanuts, millet, sesame, beans, and cassava. GTZ hired a local contractor to build a simple but sturdy structure of metal shelters.
But the new market was not being used, for reasons that were hard to pin down, and its green-painted struts were already showing signs of rust. Among the explanations advanced by Chief Daniel Assyo and a group of his villagers, three stood out: The covered spaces were fewer than agreed; the contractor had walked off with the keys to the new market's public lavatories; a local senior chief had failed to inaugurate the project.
With Esso executives looking on, Honke betrayed his impatience.
"People must use this market, otherwise it serves no purpose," he told the villagers, promising to send an engineer the next day to complete the finishing touches.
As we drove off, I asked him about his impressions of our visit. "When I first came here, I found people's expectations about the oil were incredible. They believed that the money will fall from heaven like manna," he said.
There were some mind games going on, that much was evident, and one strategy I encountered among local people throughout the oil fields was never to let the consortium think it had done enough. The psychology was clear: Keep up the pressure because this moment, when one of the world's richest corporations is among us, making barrels of money but spending it freely, may never come again.
If the preparation requirements for Chad's oil industry were rigorous, the same can be said for its routine operations, which are subject to a prodigious panoply of safeguards and firewalls. A panel of international experts scrutinizes the World Bank's involvement in the project, reporting directly to the bank's president. A government technical committee and a host of foreign and local NGOs keep beady eyes trained on revenue flow, pollution levels, oil production, emissions, dust, compensation, job equity.
Perhaps most important of all there is the Collège de Contrôle et de Surveillance des Ressources Pétrolières, a watchdog committee whose job is to monitor government expenditures on priority needs like schools, hospitals, and roads.
"The nice part is that we are starting with a sheet of clean paper in Chad," Ron Royal, a veteran oilman from Canada and president of ExxonMobil's Chad operations, told me after a tour of the state-of-the-art facilities at Komé Five Camp. "The world changes, and there is an undercurrent of transparency that is coming, and as long as there is a level playing field, we are fine with that."
Royal was raising the key question on a lot of minds: The consortium operating in the Doba fields is locked in with the government and the World Bank in an arrangement that should greatly reduce corruption, but will the same regime apply if, as seems a good bet, the consortium or other oil companies find new exploitable oil deposits under Chad's 495,755 square miles (1,284,000 square kilometers)? Or will the key parties adopt the antisocial ways of Africa's other producers, which must be cheaper for the companies and are certainly more lucrative for the local elites?
In other words, will the Chadian experiment fail at the first challenge?
Hoping for an answer, after a shortish wait in his antechamber, sunk in the soft depths of a well-used sofa, I was shown into the office of Chad's oil minister, Youssouf Abassalah. No computer was visible in the long room, nor did I see one elsewhere in the bare-walled ministry in N'Djamena, the capital. I wondered how the minister and his officials could possibly be keeping up with the 24-7 pace of the world oil business. But holding that thought to myself, I asked Abassalah whether the government would stick with the same revenue management system that it had with the consortium. I reminded him about the intemperate and anonymous attack on the oil companies, accusing them of ripping off Chad, that had beenissued in a communiqué from the presidency a few months before and that had set the alarm bells ringing in Houston.
Abassalah picked his words. He said the government would honor the principle of using oil revenue to combat poverty, although the precise form might change in future agreements. But he went on to say that 18 months after production began, the benefits of oil were coming through very slowly. He noted unhappily that before the price of a barrel was shared out, $20 had already been deducted for transporting it and discounting it because of its unsuitability for most refineries.
"What reaches the Chadian state is really minimal compared with the people's expectations."
Chad is still one of the poorest countries on Earth, and N'Djamena is one of the worst-kept cities in Africa, which is saying something. If the municipality pays people to do refuse collection, its agents are missing in inaction. The micro-weight plastic bags that are the bane of the continent are so entrenched and ubiquitous here that they seem to grow out of the sandy soil, like billowing weeds.
One day Doba might look more like an oil industry capital, in the Houston or Aberdeen mold, if not on their scale. For now, it has one long street, lined on both sides by wooden stalls and kiosks selling grilled meat, Gala beer, used tires, and other bits and pieces. It has no paved road, no Internet café, and minimal electricity. There are fewer than a dozen gas stations in the whole of Chad, and Doba hasn't got one of them. Like everywhere else, roadside vendors sell Nigerian gasoline from glass flagons, using plastic hoses and suction to get it into your tank. A 40-minute drive away at the consortium's KFC, nearly 200,000 barrels of oil race daily down the pipeline, and giant power plants feed the oil operation 120 megawatts of power—more than five times Chad's entire national capacity.
As night falls, the contrast is not lost on Doba's residents when they light their candles and kerosene lamps.
Sometimes knowing a place over a long period helps keep things in perspective. During my two previous visits to Chad, in 1982 and 1990, I hadn't had time to count plastic bags or quiz the government of the day about its budgetary management. In fact, on neither occasion had there been a government.
Instead of arriving on a direct Air France flight from Paris, as I had this time, I twice limped through a 24-hour endurance course from my base in Abidjan in Côte d'Ivoire, nervously entering N'Djamena aboard a dugout canoe after being punted across the shallow Chari River that there marks the border with Cameroon. Each time, I was painfully aware of being a day late for a Chadian regime change, one of the classic features of Africa in the 1970s and '80s.
In 1982 it was the turn of Goukouni Oueddeï to leg it, chased over the Chari by Hissène Habré. Eight years later Habré was forced to make the same one-way journey, after a cash pickup at the central bank and a visit to dungeons in the presidential palace where his personal guard is reckoned by Amnesty International to have polished off more than 300 political prisoners. By the time my BBC colleague and I had panted and puffed into the beat-up city, Idriss Déby's turbaned Zaghawa tribesmen had things under control and were sitting on looted sofas at their checkpoints.
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