Chad faces transformation through influx of oil money

Mar 14, 2004 01:00 AM

On an unpaved two-lane road south to Chad's Doba oil fields, 9,000-gallon fuel trucks raise a thick fog of dust that drifts across the nearby farms and mud-hut villages. Children selling fruit are so whitened by the dust that they look almost like ghosts. Aside from the rumble of trucks and cars, little else in this region of the world's fifth poorest country suggests an emergence from the 18th century.
Most villages have no electricity, no running water and no telephones or cellular networks. Crops are carried on the backs of donkeys or on cattle-driven carts. Less than half the population is literate. Health centres are rare.

But as Chad joins the ranks of Africa's oil-producing nations, these rustic farming towns are likely to be catapulted into the 21st century. That is, if Chad's President Idriss Deby keeps his promise to use the oil royalties -- Chad gets an estimated $ 2 bn over the next 25 years -- to build schools, hospitals, roads and water networks.
That's a big if, especiallyin Africa, where oil has been a mixed blessing. Petroleum dollars in other African countries, including Nigeria, Sudan, Angola and Equatorial Guinea, have propped up corrupt governments and fuelled ethnic conflict.

Seldom does the money trickle down to ordinary people, who often sink deeper into poverty as the flood of oil money raises the cost of food and fuel.
"We are going to have to watch our government closely. Already, there's been mismanagement," said Teresa Mekombe, a Chadian Civil Society representative who serves on a national committee that oversees the country's spending of its oil revenue.

The revenue board and the project's sponsors, the World Bank and an oil consortium led by ExxonMobil subsidiary Esso Chad, were alarmed when local media and international aid groups reported that Chad's government had spent the first $ 4 mm of a $ 25 mm bonus from the oil companies on its military. Soon after, the country's ministers decided to spend another few million dollars on refurbishing their offices.
With Chad's record of repression and corruption, many are cautious about the prospect of this country becoming Africa's model for handling sudden oil wealth. The first million barrels of oil were shipped from Cameroon in October, and are expected to fetch about $ 30 mm on the world market. Chad gets 12.5 % of that.

So far, the town of Kome, the centre of Chad's oil industry, provides a less-than-cheery forecast for a nation of 9 mm people fixated on the curative powers of crude oil. In the seven years since the oil companies and their subcontractors arrived in Kome, the town's population has more than quadrupled to more than 5,000 people. Chadians like Djibril, immigrant labourers, cigarette vendors and sex workers flocked here in pursuit of cash to send back to their families.
Their meagre gains are offset by the skyrocketing cost of food and rent. And gasoline in Kome usually is sold in liquor bottles at about $ 7 a gallon after a few minutes of haggling.

As yet, Chad has no refineries of its own and so, ironically, must import fuel from Nigeria and Cameroon.
"The problem is that everyone came here with expectations of finding jobs, but only about 10 % of the people here are employed," said Miskine Mougai, 48, Kome's chief.

Source: The Salt Lake Tribune
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