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Our oily new friends in West Africa: Americas SUVs are driving some bad foreign policy decisions. (margin notes).

ONE DAY AFTER THE ONE-YEAR ANNIVERSARY of 9/11, during a time when his administration seemed almost pathologically determined to maneuver America between Iraq and a very hard place, President Bush had a little-noticed meeting with a group of political leaders from Africa's oil-rich Gulf of Guinea.

That September 12 encounter no doubt produced a lot of talk about creating new opportunities for oil exploration and increasing oil imports to the United States. Probably little discussed, however, was the region's wretched human rights record, particularly in regard to a little nation that is described as the Kuwait of Africa by oil executives and one of Africa's worst human rights offenders by Amnesty International: Equatorial Guinea.

Since 1996 the U.S. has emerged as the largest foreign investor in Equatorial Guinea with Exxon/Mobil and Hess among corporations engaged in large-scale off-shore production. The country's oil production has increased more than tenfold since 1996 with expectations that it may one day produce as much as 500,000 barrels per day. The tiny nation's oil boom has led to an astounding gross domestic product growth in what had been an otherwise forgotten colonial backwater.

All that sudden oil wealth should be great news for the 90 percent of Equatorial Guinea's population that lives in abject poverty. Unfortunately, those folks are not likely to share in any of the benefits of this West African oil boom. If the record of the past two years is any indication, all they can expect from President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo and his spoiled-completely-rotten family is more repression and officially sanctioned corruption.

Obiang seized power in a 1979 coup, deposing his own uncle, the self-declared "president for life" Francisco Macias Nguema. The best thing you can say about Obiang is that he is not as awful as Macias, who was responsible for the murder of thousands and the collapse of the national economy. Obiang has been satisfied primarily with looting the nation's treasury and eradicating any vestige of democratic opposition through detention, violence, and assorted methods of intimidation. His immediate family and a small gang of "business people" divvy up the nation's oil wealth among themselves. Shamefully, it appears that as long as he is willing to provide a new pipeline to the U.S., the Bush administration, which has strong ties to many of the major corporate players in Equatorial Guinea, is content to hold its nose and stick out its hand. There is talk in Washington about beginning military training programs or establishing a new navy command. The U.S. embassy, closed in 1996 after our own ambassador began to receive death threats, will reopen soon.

Washington strategists say that a reliable back-up oil supply will be necessary to fuel our global war on terror in the event that Middle East production falls apart. There seems to be little attention, however, to Obiang's dismal record or the long-term implications of a new relationship with another oil despot. This seems like a path we've taken our SUVs down a few times before, to our ultimate regret.

America's oil addiction is arguably the cause of our most pressing political problems. Oil got us into Gulf War I and may drive us into Gulf War II. Our need for oil has been at the heart of our embrace of a dirty laundry list of history's worst political leaders. This "tradition" of supporting rotten but friendly regimes is part of the international resentment directed at the U.S.

Like an addict whose illness compels the same hurtful patterns and disfiguring decisions, the U.S. stands again on an oil-addled precipice. We can either take that first hard step and admit our collective problem with oil or we can begin the cycle one more time in West Africa, supporting a totalitarian kleptocracy that will keep the spigots open even as it keeps a heavy boot on the democratic aspirations of its own people.

In a recent pastoral letter, West African bishops called for a complete reexamination of the uses and abuses of the region's oil economy. The bishops charge that under existing market and political conditions the industry only increases corruption, regional conflict, and environmental degradation while exacerbating the already extreme circumstances of West Africa's poor.

We can just say no to this latest oil intrigue and return human rights, not oil imports, to the top of our foreign policy priorities. Let's not fight the war on terror by helping to terrorize other people.

KEVIN CLARKE, managing editor of online products at Claretian Publications in Chicago.
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Author:Clarke, Kevin
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Geographic Code:6EQUA
Date:Nov 1, 2002
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