In Niger, government officials have fought a Chinese oil giant step by step, painfully undoing parts of a contract they say is ruinous. In 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,” Nigerien Minister of Oil Foumakoye Gado said. “If our natural resources are given away, we’ll never get out of this.”
Below Gado’s seventh-floor office — accessible through a dark stairwell because there is no working elevator — his fellow citizens are living in mud brick houses without electricity and washing their clothes in the river. Oil production in Niger began nearly two years ago, but has yet to make a dent in living standards.
“We’ve got to fight to get full value for these resources,” Gado said. “If they are valued correctly, we can hope to bring something to our people.”
More than 1,000km away in the oil-producing region, Chinese refinery workers and engineers mass boisterously at a crumbling and otherwise unused airport for their quarterly holiday flights out, one of the many costs Gado said that Niger — at the bottom of the UN Human Development Index — could not afford.
A private auditor hired by Niger recently found bloated costs and unfair charges by the China National Petroleum Corp, providing the country with ammunition for its next round of tense negotiations in Beijing, Gado said. Tens of millions of dollars have already been scored off the Chinese through such painstaking revisions.
Across the border in Chad, officials have taken a harder line with China National Petroleum, reflecting growing confidence after 10 years of oil production that has brought the country new roads and public buildings, a revamped army and a strengthening of the government’s grip on power, despite little change in its low poverty ranking.
Chadian Minister of Oil Djerassem Le Bemadjiel shut down the Chinese operations in the middle of last month after discovering that they were dumping excess crude oil in ditches south of the capital, N’Djamena, then making Chadian workers remove it with no protection.
“Just dumped in the open,” said Antoine Doudjidingao, an economist who helps lead an oil watchdog group in N’Djamena. “This is a serious case, the first of its kind. You can’t just shut your eyes in the face of it. It’s a responsible reaction.”