Yet when Margonelli arrives in November 2003, Chad seems to be “undeveloping and moving backward.” In N’Djamena, the capital, traffic lights stand dim and useless ( Chad doesn’t produce electricity), generators don’t work, and gas stations lie in ruins. It seems that the best thing oil has brought are the bright, generator-powered security lights outside Exxon’s offices, where children sit on bomb barriers at night to do their homework. Meanwhile, the World Bank’s “controls” have been flouted: The panel of citizens formed to decide how to spend the oil money has been stacked with cronies of President Idriss Déby, and Déby himself has spent his first payment from Exxon on weapons. By the end of 2005, the oil project had surpassed expectations by generating $306 million in revenues, yet Chad, once the tenth-poorest country in the world, had become the fourth-poorest. According to Transparency International, a global watchdog group, it was now tied with Bangladesh as the most corrupt.
Margonelli strikingly conveys the absurdity of the situation in N’Djamena by describing what happens when President Déby comes to town. Suddenly, the streets empty. Stores are locked, cars disappear. “It’s well known that anyone caught peeking from a window may be shot,” Margonelli writes. “How strange to be Idriss Déby,” she muses, “ruler of a poor and chaotic country, and to drive through it completely depopulated, as if a neutron bomb has hit, insisting to the world that you’ve been democratically elected.” It must be stranger still to live under his rule.
Oddly enough, Margonelli finds hope in China, a country whose robust economic growth has earned both the fear of western oil companies and the scorn of environmentalists. At Shanghai’s International Auto City, where Margonelli attends a competition for alternative-fuel and low-emissions vehicles, she learns that the Chinese government wisely views energy efficiency as an opportunity to increase its global competitiveness. Daimler Chrysler, Toyota, GM, and Ford are all showcasing their newest inventions. But Margonelli is most impressed by a little yellow, egg-shaped electric vehicle called “Aspire.” Designed by students from the Wuhan Institute of Technology, its headlights and hood form the shape of a smiley face. This is the car of the future, Margonelli decides: small and slow, but efficient. Never mind that it needs a push to get started. “It has a few problems,” the engineer shouts above the motor’s high-pitched screech. “But it has a happy feeling.”
The same could be said for Oil on the Brain. Just as the Oil Age brought planes, trains, and automobiles, Margonelli concludes, its byproducts—pollution, corruption, and global warming—ought to be solvable with a new set of innovations. Perhaps, but I’m skeptical that today’s drivers are ready to trade their powerful fuel-charged engines for an electric egg—or that today’s world leaders are prepared to convince them they should.
One reason for my skepticism is Nicholas Shaxson. Poisoned Wells, a distillation of Shaxson’s fifteen years of reporting from Africa on the oil business, offers a gloomy view of oil, politics, and the international financial system. Shaxson focuses on Nigeria, Gabon, Angola, Equatorial Guinea, and São Tomé, Africa’s newest oil producer, and his stories about each of them are equally disturbing, bizarre, often confusing and ultimately dispiriting. In each place, oil—“the corrupting, poisonous substance”—has created an “Alice-in-Wonderland world” of outsized characters directing mysterious underground economies, fueling bitter conflicts, and destroying any hope for ordinary development.
Shaxson tells this history by focusing on a character who is somehow emblematic of each country’s oil-induced turmoil. In Nigeria, for example, there’s Fela Kuti, a James Brown-style musician who “illustrates the indefatigable spirit” of the country. As Nigeria fractures along ethnic lines and an oil boom fuels the conflict, Fela becomes ever more brazen and hedonistic. He’d “strut onstage in his underpants, taunting Nigeria’s elites,” until after one particularly subversive performance, he is dragged out of his compound by his genitals, brutally beaten, and imprisoned. When the oil boom ends, rival factions scramble for the remaining spoils. Fela’s band, too, is torn apart by the excesses of its own success. Finally, Fela dies of aids in 1997, “buried in his tight yellow trousers with a joint between his fingers.”
Fela’s story is “the musical score to accompany the unraveling of a nation,” writes Shaxson. Still, Fela had nothing to do with the oil industry. The story of Alhaji Mujahid Dokubu-Asari, the militant Ijaw leader who threatens the Nigerian government, and whose supporters kidnap oil workers and bunker hundreds of thousands of barrels of crude to fund their resistance, is central. But we don’t get to him until much later.