NIAMEY, Niger - In Niger, government officials have fought a Chinese oil giant step by step, painfully undoing parts of a contract they call ruinous. In neighboring Chad, they have been even more forceful, shutting down the Chinese and accusing them of gross environmental negligence. In Gabon, they have seized major oil tracts from China, handing them over to the state company.
China wants Africa's oil as much as ever. But instead of accepting the old terms, which many African officials call unconditional surrender, some cash-starved African states are pushing back, showing an assertiveness unthinkable until recently and suggesting that the days of unbridled influence by the African continent's mega-investor may be waning.
For years, China has found eager partners across the continent, where governments of every ilk have welcomed the nation's deep pockets and hands-off approach to local politics as an alternative to the West.
Now China's major state oil companies are being challenged by African governments that have learned decades of hard lessons about heedless resource-grabs by outsiders and are looking anew at the deals they or their predecessors have signed. Where the Chinese companies are seen as gouging, polluting or hogging valuable tracts, African officials have started resisting, often at the risk of angering one of their most important trading partners.
"This is all we've got," said Niger's oil minister, Foumakoye Gado. "If our natural resources are given away, we'll never get out of this."
David Fuller's view There are two important aspects to this situation: 1) Africa's governments are becoming worldlier, which is certainly in their own interests; 2) Worldwide demand for crude oil, natural gas and all other forms of energy can only rise as the global economy recovers.
Currently, few developed economies have secured their future energy supplies at internationally competitive costs, although many still have a window of opportunity in which to do so. The main exceptions are Canada, the USA, Norway and Australia. Yes, they have their own domestic supplies of crude oil and natural gas. However, most other developed economies could improve both their energy supplies and costs if they prioritised development of their own shale resources. The USA pioneered this technology and has utilised it increasingly successfully, with little evidence to date of serious earthquakes or the contamination of water supplies predicted by naysayers.