Living in the epicenter of the global oil industry, I have spent many years thinking, teaching and writing about oil, authoritarian governments and human rights. Because of this, I have felt exasperated, angry and fed up upon hearing lawmakers’ posturing about the nomination of Rex Tillerson to be secretary of state and how his policies might threaten the United States’ role as the primary promoter of human rights across the globe.
Upon leaving the nomination hearings, for example, Senator Marco Rubio stated: “I don’t want to see us move toward a foreign policy in which human rights only matters when nothing else matters, when something more important isn’t standing in the way.” Really? Could Senator Rubio actually believe that such an approach would be new?
As any observer of African or Middle Eastern politics knows, this is a policy the United States has relied on for decades, especially if the nation in question is a producer of strategic minerals or oil. This is the other inconvenient truth about American oil dependence that Americans love to ignore. I am betting that with Tillerson in charge of U.S. foreign policy, this reality will become more apparent, more overt – and thus, in a good way, much more difficult for Americans to overlook.
In terms of Africa, I am convinced that our denial of this inconvenient truth derives from a reliance on two very old and constantly replayed tropes: that of the evil oil company and that of the corrupt African leader. Although one’s political leaning determines which of the two will be used to explain away the problems facing many oil-producing nations, both are detrimental in that they divert attention from the full complexity of the geopolitics at play.
Such an act of diversion was apparent in the recent New York Times article chronicling Tillerson’s “maverick oil diplomacy” with authoritarian governments around the globe. Although the author clearly culled data from Stephen Coll’s 2012 “Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power” to illustrate scenarios from the Middle East, when it came to the two African countries mentioned (Angola and Equatorial Guinea), Coll’s research was entirely ignored. Instead we are presented with the familiar story, always relayed in voyeuristic tone: a governmental elite rolling in extreme wealth, their children’s lifestyles of profligacy and corruption, a political system that relies on imprisonment, torture and execution to quell opposition, and a population living on less than $2 a day.
I do not deny that these are realities, nor do I wish to serve as an apologist for the oil companies. I just wish that reporting and discussion on these issues would begin to embrace their full complexity. If they don’t, how will we, or future generations, be able to think logically and seek solutions? How will we solve the energy issues that continue to vex the world?
In the case of Equatorial Guinea, Coll’s research makes clear that since 9/11, when fears of terror attacks on U.S. oil installations emerged, and after a failed coup attempt against Equatorial Guinea’s president in 2004, both the Bush and Obama administrations have worked quietly in partnership with not just ExxonMobil but an array of actors to keep President Teodoro Obiang Nguema in place. These included key U.S. agencies – including the State Department, the National Security Agency and the U.S. military– two high-power Washington public relations companies, a Virginia–based private military company, and on the advice of the Bush administration, Israeli security contractors and arms suppliers.
The goal for all? To burnish Obiang’s international reputation, convince him to improve on human rights issues, to protect American oil companies’ installations offshore and to ensure that the oil continues to flow to the U.S., rather than to China or France. This is the realpolitick Americans need to be aware of if they want to critique Tillerson. Relying on false notions about concern for human rights will not do the job.
Obiang remains in power, president since 1979 of a country with vast reserves of oil, despite allegations of corruption, electoral fraud and abuse of power. He is Africa’s longest-serving leader, ruling in a one-party state. But despite his baggage, the West continues to see him as a leader with whom it can do business.
When I teach about oil and Africa, I use Coll’s chapters on Equatorial Guinea not to expose students to the tremendous power exercised by ExxonMobil at home and abroad – all Houstonians are aware of that. Instead I use them to illustrate just how complex and convoluted the systems by which we ensure our access to oil can become.
I was present at a trade conference held in Houston in 2012, organized by the Washington PR companies, where Obiang and his son Gabriel attempted to woo local business owners to invest in his country.
It was a surreal experience, watching the power of petroleum profits at work. Houston’s most liberal mayor, Annise Parker, declared an honorary “Equatorial Guinea Week” by way of welcome, and Democratic U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee came to make a speech. I’ve wondered ever since, did they have any knowledge about Obiang’s problems, any indication that the emperor wore no clothes?
Under a Trump/Tillerson administration however, with American lawmakers and citizens so wary about the latter’s ties to ExxonMobil, such events will not go unnoticed anymore.
And that is a good thing. As I see it, Americans are about to get “woke” – not just to the maneuvering tactics or “diplomacy” of Big Oil, but also to the ways that our government, as well as our lifestyles, can contribute to diminishment of human rights for citizens of nations around the globe.