Will the next war for oil be in Africa?

The number of Americans who believe that the war in Iraq was a mistake has surpassed the number who felt the same way about Vietnam during that war. At the same time, a much quieter U.S. military build-up is underway on another continent. The ultimate objective of the two efforts is the same: securing Big Oil’s access to the regions’ oil. The impact in Africa will likely be the same as in Iraq: perpetual occupation, instability, and growing anti-Americanism.

In recognition of “the emerging strategic importance of Africa,” in February 2007 President Bush ordered the creation of AFRICOM, the U.S. Africa Command. AFRICOM, like CENTCOM (Central Command) and EUCOM (European Command), centralizes all authority for the U.S. military operating in the African region under one command structure. AFRICOM also transfers many duties that previously belonged to nonmilitary US agencies – such as building schools and digging wells – to the jurisdiction of the Department of Defense. While fighting terrorism in Africa is the primary reason given for the establishment of AFRICOM, oil appears to be the more pressing motivator. “A key mission for U.S. forces [in Africa] would be to insure that Nigeria’s oilfields, which in the future could account for as much as 25 percent of all U.S. oil imports, are secure,” explains General Charles Wald, deputy commander of U.S. forces in Europe in an interview with Wall Street Journal writer Greg Jaffe.

To secure and maintain access to oil – if not for the nation, then most certainly for our oil companies – the Bush administration has increasingly turned toward the U.S. military. Author Kevin Phillips coined the term “petrol-imperialism” to describe the Bush administration’s policies in this regard, “the key aspect of which is the U.S. military’s transformation into a global oil protection force.” Under the rubric of the Global War on Terror, the Bush administration has implemented the greatest realignment of U.S. forces since the end of the Cold War. With a map of Big Oil’s overseas operations, the world’s remaining oil reserves, and oil transport routes, one can now track the realignment and predict future deployments of the U.S. military.

Africa, with almost 10% of the world’s remaining oil, is an area of increasing activity for both Big Oil and the U.S. military. Between 2000 and 2007, U.S. imports of oil from Africa increased by 65 percent, from 1.6 to 2.7 million barrels a day, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. These imports, in turn, accounted for a growing percentage of all U.S. oil imports: increasing from 14.5% in 2000 to 20% in 2007. Both trends are expected to accelerate in the future.

Not only is the United States importing more African oil, but U.S. oil companies are also increasing their African reserves and their presence on the continent. According to SEC tax filings, in 2000, ExxonMobil operated in just three African nations – Angola, Equatorial Guinea, and Nigeria – and its production there was negligible relative to the rest of the world. Today, ExxonMobil operates in Angola, Cameroon, Chad, Equatorial Guinea, and Nigeria, and is set to begin work in Libya. Its African holdings account for nearly 17% of the company’s global oil reserves.

According to 2008 SEC Tax Filings, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, and Marathon, among other U.S. oil companies, are also increasing their presence, with each operating in three or more of the following countries: Algeria, Angola, Cameroon, Chad, the Republic of Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Libya, and Nigeria. According to U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman, U.S. companies hope to expand their operations further, with Madagascar, Benin, Sao Tome and Principe, and Guinea-Bissau among potential future targets.

Shell and BP, both with large U.S. affiliates that are active in both U.S. political campaigns and domestic lobbying efforts, are also expanding their already sizeable African operations.

The Bush administration has increasingly turned to the Department of Defense to ensure more stable governments in Africa that are supportive of both the U.S. government and U.S. (and U.S.-affiliated) oil corporations and to guarantee an amenable (some would argue, subdued) populace. The administration has increased the provision of both arms and direct military services and training to Africa, such that today Angola, Algeria, Botswana, Chad, Cote d’Iviore, the Republic of the Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gabon, Kenya, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Sudan, and Uganda are all direct recipients of such assistance. General James Jones, EUCOM Commander, announced that U.S. Navy carrier battle groups would shorten future visits to the Mediterranean and “spend half the time going down the west coast to Africa.” The former French Foreign Legion base, Camp Lemonier in Djibouti, became home to the U.S. military’s Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa in 2003.

AFRICOM is currently headquartered in Germany, but intends to “establish a presence” on the African continent this year. There are several options for new U.S. military bases, including a naval base and deepwater port on the tiny island of Sao Tome off the coast of Gabon, located in West Africa. The Pentagon is also considering new bases in Senegal, Ghana, and Mali.

U.S. oil companies have long used African military and security forces to protect their oil interests. Perhaps it is more honest for the U.S. military to take more direct oversight over these operations. But the risks far outweigh any potential benefit. The United States is already engaged in one war for oil in Iraq and the U.S. military knows this. General John Abizaid, retired head of U.S. Central Command and military operations in Iraq, said of the war, “Of course it’s about oil, we can’t really deny that.” The concern is that, as it has in Iraq, a larger U.S. military presence in Africa will strain an already overburdened military while increasing internal hostilities, regional instability, and anger at the United States.

The answer to our nation’s oil addiction is not to secure new and diverse suppliers. We need to kick the habit and just say no, beginning with AFRICOM.