Saturday, February 2, 2008

International: Blood and oil in Chad

Violence is spreading in Chad as rebels attack the capital. The flow of blood is, unfortunately, all too connected to the flow of oil.

In 2003, Chad became a significant oil exporter thanks to the World Bank-sponsored Chad-Cameroon pipeline. The World Bank stipulated restrictions on how the oil money could be used, but of course once the pipeline was built, the Chadian government as a lot less willing to follow the rules.

Chad's neighbours do not give us much hope for responsible leadership. North of Chad, Qaddhafi has ruled Libya for almost 40 years, where he has used oil money to sponsor violence around the world. To the East, Sudan is a major oil-exporter and, not coincidentally, embroiled in a genocide in Darfur.

Why does this seem to happen in oil-exporting countries? There are two basic reasons.

First, oil erodes the legitimacy of government. The oil industry is famously corrupt, perhaps second only to the global arms trade in terms of bribes paid and officials bought off. Along with corruption, oil money usually brings economic mismanagement and government incompetence. In a desparately poor country like Chad, this all adds up to a highly unpopular government that lacks any real legitimacy. That opens up the door to extreme, revolutionary leaders who are little interested in ruling the country for the good of the public.

Second, oil income is highly concentrated. This makes a successful revolution potentially very profitable: if the rebels can seize control of the government, they seize control of a very lucrative oil business. High stakes attracts big sharks: again, radical leaders.

How should the internatoinal community respond to the situation in Chad, and oil-exporters elsewhere? Well I'm working on that -- I'll let you know when my dissertation is finished. But the logical starting point is that countries should at least avoid doing harm.

This is what France appears to have done over the last 3-5 years: it has continued to back the President of Chad, even as his people have turned against him. Doing so has robbed France of any legitimacy in the eyes of the people, greatly reducing its ability to help re-establish peace. The international community has simply got to learn the lesson that continues to haunt the global arena: backing a unpopular and illegitimate but compliant dictator might work in the short-run, but it frequently comes back to bite us in the rear-end -- with disastrous consequences.