…what the hell was a girl with a manicure doing wallowing miserably on our friend Osman’s floor 40 kilometers from Sudan?
I didn’t understand why we were picking Anna up on this dusty street. “Whatever” I thought. “Another naive do-gooder without a clue or a budget” or, it seemed in this case, a ride. What she did have however was a meeting at Exxon and that made her interesting to me.
Mike and I met Anna the previous week at the Africare field director’s house in Abeche, a frontier trading town near the Sudanese border. At that time she did not look well at all. Her eyes were sunken and her skin pale. The stormy Chadian night made everything clammy but the moisture seemed to cling to her face like a grotesque mask. She was frail, extremely sick, and hideous and I sympathized with her – we had all been there – but what the hell was a girl with a manicure doing wallowing miserably on the floor in our friend Osman’s house 40 kilometers from Sudan?
In the late 1970s a consortium of western oil companies discovered oil in the Lake Chad region. Though they briefly produced small amounts of crude, fighting that led to the ouster of Goukoune Ouaddai disrupted oil operations in 1980. In the turbulent years that followed, none of the oil majors bothered to resume production and instead focused on exploration. Their efforts began to pay off with discoveries in the country’s south in 1985. World Bank funding for a pipeline followed and by 2004, after 14 years without civil war, the oil finally began to flow leading to an unprecedented 373% boom in Chad’s production of crude oil. When I arrived in 2005, oil was driving Exxon’s massive project in the south and spinning off a number of supporting efforts such as road building and construction of cellular phone networks in the Lake Chad region and elsewhere.
Rapid expansion however brought Exxon-Mobil some challenges with local populations affected by oil operations. The company was rumored to have a development budget to help them improve relations with their neighbors and I was curious how they were using it. Though I had no official reason or instructions to dig into Exxon, Anna’s visit presented an opportunity to learn what they were doing and to increase my general understanding of the environment in which I worked. I tried to focus on this history as we bounced carefully through the streets enroute to our rendezvous with Anna.
I picked my way carefully through the midday N’Djamena traffic. The road was a hazardous melee of pedestrians and motorbikes, all seemingly unconcerned about safety but very concerned about not getting mud from the unpaved street on their clothes. Without plumbing in most buildings, the countless potholes filled with raw sewage during the rainy season. I had to be very careful while driving to avoid splashing pedestrians lest I spark off a violent mob reaction. It had happened before. Turning onto a side street, we approached our link up point and I scanned a knot of Chadian pedestrians for any sign of sickly Anna’s blond hair, canvas slacks, and hiking shoes that seemed to be an unflattering uniform for all the western girls.
Catching sight of her in the crowd, I slowed and got a bit of a shock. Standing there waving as if hailing a cab was a stunning blond beauty whose tailored business suit would not have been out of place on 5th Avenue in New York. She was undoubtedly the same girl Mike and I met in Osman’s barren living room in Abeche but I barely recognized her. Here in the crumbling Chadian capital she was absolutely sublime. I stopped the car and she glided toward us with a brilliant smile and a wave. Somehow her high-heeled shoes did not seem to dig into the muddy softness of the unpaved ground. Mike jumped out and held the door for her as if he were a chauffer. Who the hell was this woman? She was not the last surprise I would have that day.
Anna was an officer of International Relief & Development (IRD), a now defunct nonprofit, non-governmental aid organization (NGO) and she had come to Chad to set up an operation from scratch. I understood something of the magnitude of her task. IRD was late to the game in Chad where war, drought, and famine in Sudan’s Darfur region had created a long-term disaster with hundreds of thousands of Sudanese refugees living in squalid camps near the border. The camps put great strain on the already impoverished region and were a security concern for both Chad and Sudan as rebels from both sides used the camps as a base. Though the humanitarian community had already been engaged in Chad for years, the crisis did not become news in the west until 2004 when the International Crisis Group released an explosive report about conflict in Darfur. By that time, IRD’s executives were clambering to catch up.
Anna explained her plan for the meeting as we drove through town. At the time, IRD was not the multi-billion dollar consortium it later became and she intended to use other people’s money to augment what she could accomplish with her limited budget. She believed Exxon had the money but lacked the personnel and expertise to get the job done. Anna’s idea was bold and creative but one that could be extremely controversial with donors wary of tying IRD to a major oil company. The meeting would be interesting indeed and I wondered if she would be successful. I knew from experience a few thousand dollars would go a long way in Chad.
Exxon had a relatively large office in a non-descript part of N’Djamena. Like the western embassies in town, security at Exxon was extremely tight with high walls, closed circuit television, and armed guards. The guards were well equipped Chadians directed by very experienced-looking white South African supervisors. We passed through the vehicle checkpoint and were escorted into the office of “Paul”, one of their operations managers. Anna floated into the office and exchanged pleasantries with Paul as if she outranked him. It was difficult to know if she always carried herself with such confident determination or if she was rising to the occasion.
Turning to Mike and me, Paul nodded blankly as we briefly explained our function at the American Embassy. I was conscious of the strangeness of our group. Dressed in our khakis and collared shirts, Mike and I probably looked more like Anna’s security detail than the managers of an American Embassy program. Furthermore, an apparent connection between IRD and the United States Government would seem very odd indeed. I watched Paul closely for a reaction. He tried to remain stoic but was as unbalanced by the well dressed Russian-American beauty as we initially were. Despite the apparent mismatch, the American oilman offered us each seats around a small round table.
Anna spoke first, skillfully presenting IRD as an experienced organization with a very businesslike approach to development work. She explained IRD’s late arrival in Chad as the result of a calculated decision to allow the situation there to develop. She carefully avoided asking for money and instead put the ball in Paul’s court by asking him to propose possible synergies with Exxon’s operations.
Exxon, Paul explained, was fond of deploying pre-packaged capabilities that could be applied with rapid effect. Containerized housing and prefabricated schools gave them an ability to spend money and affect local conditions without the risk and intense requirements of selecting and supervising local contractors. It was expensive and relatively corruption-proof though somewhat soulless and without lasting effect.
Anna’s eyes gleamed as she asked questions aimed at getting her hands on Exxon’s hardware but the more she discovered, the more apparent it became that Exxon aimed its programs at populations in the sub-tropical south; an area far from the semi-desert Sahelian wasteland Anna was interested in. She started to ask about the money. Slightly uncomfortable with the subject matter, Paul proceeded carefully, giving me the impression he knew Anna was looking for a donation. It was clear Exxon wanted to keep its deployable assets in the south close to the oil fields. Though he continually downplayed the significance of Exxon’s community programs, I suspected his operations eclipsed what I was accustomed to dealing with.
Anna pursued the line of questioning. Paul deflected. “Sadly we’re quite new at this.” He said. “At this point, assistance is only a very small, underdeveloped part of our operation…It’s budget dust really.”
“Don’t underestimate the potential of small amounts of money in this environment,” she countered. “IRD’s expertise could help magnify the effect.”
The conversation carried on this way for a bit, with Anna providing inspirational ideas for spending Exxon’s money followed by a defensive parry from Paul. She was relentless and he seemed to be running out of reasons to avoid making her an offer. We all felt we were on the verge of a discovery and I began supporting some of her points. Her enthusiasm was contagious and my curiosity was growing.
“What did he have up his sleeve” I wondered? “$10,000? $20,000?” I had rebuilt a hospital emergency room with just $8000. Perhaps he would throw in some containerized housing. I thought of some things I could do with a shipping container and pondered what other hardware he might be willing to part with.
Now that Anna had unveiled her purpose she grew specific in her descriptions of what she wanted. She revealed her desires to build schools and a clinics, common needs in eastern Chad. Finally defeated, Paul relented with an embarrassed flourish. He seemed to shrink a bit and his voice lost power as if he were doing something he shouldn’t. We waited for it.
“I could probably donate some containerized housing units, ten or so” he said meekly, “but only a small amount of money, around a million dollars.” I was absolutely floored. A ‘small amount’?! In his book, Private Empire, Steve Coll explains why I was so shocked.
“Exxon Mobil’s investments in the Chad-Cameroon oil project would amount to $4.2 billion. Annual aid to Chad from the United States was only about $3 million.”
I suspect Anna was much more successful than I at hiding her surprise. Perhaps she wasn’t surprised at all but I was lost in the magnitude of what I just heard. The amount of money Paul so casually dismissed was so far beyond what I had access to that I later spent a lot of time thinking about how oil would change Chad. I do not know if Anna ever concluded a deal with Exxon. Having achieved her aim, she no longer required assistance from me and we never saw her again. She was very good at using other people’s money.
Nearly a decade later, oil’s impact on Chad is taking shape. Once a consumer of French security guarantees, Chad has become an exporter of military and diplomatic strength. With encouragement and funding from France and the United States, the Chadian Army has deployed to the Central African Republic and Mali to support Paris’ foreign policy. In the latter case, Chadian formations engaged very successfully in heavy combat with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. At the same time, Chad is increasingly active as a facilitator of political solutions in the region, helping to mediate numerous central African conflicts including an effort to sponsor talks between Nigeria and Boko Haram in 2014. President Deby has also grown more secure politically, reestablishing his air force in 2006 and daring to add a tribal suffix to his last name, a politically provocative move that in other times would have dangerously unified rivals against him.
The massive windfall from oil is also paying for Chad’s empowerment but it is not just about the money. Oil inspires the protective instincts and political blessings of France and the United States which have both improved relations with N’Djamena since I served there in 2005. It has also attracted interest from China which has a long term plan to develop areas of the Sahel that are less profitable or too tainted by conflict for western oil companies to touch. In pursuit of this strategy, Beijing has secured exploration rights near Lake Chad where it had previously built cellular phone networks and roads. Their approach causes one to consider the possibility that Beijing could someday consider cynically manipulating conflict dynamics in this volatile region as a means to push western competitors out.
The presence of oil also complicates the response to a new security threat. The rise of Boko Haram in northeastern Nigeria is spreading southward into parts of northern Cameroon immediately adjacent to N’Djamena. A failure to halt their expansion could threaten pipelines through which Chadian oil flows if not the oil fields themselves. The challenge for Idriss Deby is that French power is more limited in Nigeria and Cameroon than it is in the rest of the Sahel. With little clarity in how to fight Boko Haram, the Chadian security services have been waging a defensive campaign designed to keep the terrorist group on the other side of the Chari river. Up to this point they have been largely successful but a serious threat to either the capital city or to the oil infrastructure in the south would provoke a furious reaction that could further destabilize the region and drain Deby’s resources. If the situation deteriorates badly enough, Deby’s traditional rivals in the east may calculate the time is ripe for another attempt on N’Djamena. In this way, the discovery of oil in southern Chad ties together war and disaster on both sides of that impoverished country.
Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC