Last month, Le Bemadjiel refused to allow the Chinese to resume operations, even expelling the company’s local director-general and his assistant. There would be no resumption until the Chinese built remediation and treatment facilities, the Chadian government said.
“Regardless of the actual spillage, which the Chadian government would normally not care much about, this seems to be a warning, which just goes to show that even the prototypical weak state in Africa can have serious leverage and that African-Chinese relations are not as unbalanced as is sometimes argued,” said Ricardo Soares de Oliveira, a politics professor at the University of Oxford and an expert on African oil.
In Gabon, the government has surprised the oil industry by withdrawing a permit for a significant oil field from a subsidiary of another Chinese state-owned company, Sinopec, and turning it over to a newly created national oil company. Gabonese officials were quoted last month as threatening to cancel permits to other fields as well, accusing the Chinese of environmental missteps and mismanagement, as in Chad. Some analysts said Gabon’s motive was merely to reap more of the rewards from these fields.
“The Chinese are genuinely unprepared for this degree of pushback,” Soares de Oliveira said.
The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs rejected the notion that its role had been anything but fruitful. In Niger, it said it has improved the economy, hired local residents and is building schools, digging wells and carrying out other “public welfare activities.” In Chad, it said it has urged companies to protect the environment and will seek to resolve the dispute through “friendly negotiation,” while in Gabon, as elsewhere, it said it supports cooperation “on the basis of equality, amity and mutual benefit.”
Few nations in the world are as weak as Niger, where nearly half of the government budget comes from foreign donors. Yet the nation long had unfulfilled oil dreams that were largely ignored by major companies. In 2008, former Nigerien president Mamadou Tandja and China National Petroleum came together secretively and signed an unpublicized deal that seemed to give both parties what they wanted.
However, far less clear, then and now, was whether Niger — one of the world’s most impoverished countries, regularly threatened by famine — would substantially benefit from the deal.
Tandja got a costly oil refinery in an area of Niger that he needed to win over with the promise of development, but the need for such a project in the low-energy-consuming nation has been sharply questioned by experts, not to mention the mysterious US$300 million “signing bonus” that Tandja’s administration received.
In return, the Chinese company got access to untapped oil reserves in the remote fields on Chad’s border on terms that still make Nigerien oil officials wince. Beyond that, local residents have protested that the Chinese presence has brought few jobs, low pay and harsh working conditions.
Tandja is long gone, deposed in a 2010 coup by army officers suspicious of his grab for expansive powers, but the contract remains, as does the white elephant oil refinery. It sits at the border with Nigeria, a nation awash in subsidized oil that crosses into Niger as contraband. The refinery has a capacity that is three times Niger’s consumption and the overall cost should have been only US$784 million, according to a UN expert. Niger must still pay 40 percent of the original cost, with money lent to it by the Chinese.