Dreams of Oil Wealth, Tinted by Fear

Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, April 11, 2008

AXIM, Ghana -- In a world mad for oil, last year's discovery of massive new reserves off Ghana's coast has been greeted as a national lottery ticket improbably paying off: Fishermen fantasize about steady jobs, politicians about gushing revenue. A traditional chief imagines a sparkling new city rising where now there are only impoverished coastal villages.

But these dreams come laced with fear. For Ghanaians can look in almost any direction for a glimpse of the ruinous power of natural resources -- not just oil, but diamonds, rubber, copper, timber -- that at first appeared to be nothing but the earth's blessings. Even their own fabled Ashanti gold region, Ghanaians say, has benefited foreign investors far more than those who live among its riches.

So in conferences and newspaper columns, in political debates and casual chats, Ghanaians are struggling for a way to grow one of Africa's most stable democracies into one of its most prosperous, while blunting the corrupting power that has made oil a curse for so many of its neighbors.

Economist Kwamena Essilfie Adjaye, who advises Ghanaian President John Kufuor, estimated that the annual revenue from oil soon will reach $1 billion a year, more than the country now receives in foreign assistance and enough to embark on major development initiatives. But it is not yet clear where, or when, or for whom.

"That to me is the biggest challenge we will face as a nation, when you have that significant revenue flow in," Adjaye said.

Such conversations inevitably turn to towns such as Axim and other settlements along the shore nearest to where offshore derricks soon will rise.

Though ripe with the scent of fish hauled in each day on handmade wooden sailboats, the people here are poor and skeptical of the central government up the coast in Accra, the capital. Axim's imposing slave castle, where European merchants once warehoused human chattel for their onward journey to the Americas, sits heavily on a hill above the fishing beach, a stark reminder of the dark side of international commerce.

In conversations along the beach, where catches have been scant for several months, many young men imagined they soon would find lucrative work with an oil company.

"Every Ghanaian is excited about it," said Nuhu Ahmed, 26, a lean son of a fisherman who recently finished college and hoped to avoid falling into the family business. "Once the drilling begins, the young in the area will be employed."

Others predicted new housing developments, medical clinics, a sewage system, paved roads. Some even think that the construction of offshore oil facilities will drive tuna, shark, dolphin and red snapper closer to shore, enlarging catches.

Yet these expectations were mixed with distrust of the government officials who will decide how the oil money is spent. Such a combination has proved explosive in Nigeria's oil-producing region, where discontent has grown into a prolonged civil conflict. Many of the armed gangs there simply tap into oil pipelines for easy profits to pay for their weapons and fuel for the speedboats used in attacks on oil-company installations.

Easy access to resources has provoked or prolonged wars throughout much of Africa. In Sierra Leone, it was diamonds; in Liberia, diamonds and timber; in Congo, diamonds and metals. And in Nigeria, Angola, Equatorial Guinea and Sudan, oil wealth has helped entrench some of Africa's most corrupt governments.

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