Facing the geopolitical consequences of the falling oil price in West Africa

By Sophie Quintin Adali

– Oil is the king of commodities and its tumbling price has thrown global financial markets into turmoil. For fragile oil-dependent West African states this situation could spell disaster with serious consequences for international security.

If the falling crude price means cheaper petrol at the pump for oil-importing European states, the outlook for their oil industry is rather gloomier. In the short to medium terms, companies will need to adjust by axing jobs and investments. For oil-exporting economies, adjusting could prove far more problematic.

It is worth recalling that the crash of the oil price in 1985 was one of the determinant factors in the collapse of the Soviet Union. Today energy-dependent Russia is struggling to cope with the unexpected turn of events that saw the OPEC game-maker, Saudi Arabia, choosing to keep high production levels.

For Sub-Saharan Africa, and in particular, for littoral states of the Gulf of Guinea whose revenues are dependent on less economical offshore oil production, the continued fall could be disastrous. Indeed if Russia’s economy is seen as “already in a perfect storm” then Nigeria’s oil-dependent economy stands in the eye of the “mother of all perfect storms.”

The “Giant of Africa,” both by its size (twice that of California) and its population (175 million), is also its main oil producer (2 million barrels/day). Oil accounts for 75 percent of the federal government’s revenue and has been used for political patronage, thus keeping together this heterogeneous behemoth.

On its southern shores, oil production and transportation have been disrupted by militancy in the Niger Delta, theft of oil on a massive scale and illicit activities at sea (armed robbery and piracy). An estimated $1.5 billion per month is lost to criminal activities. In the north, the Islamist insurgency is making gains against a poorly-equipped military. The government’s inability to deal decisively with the crisis could reignite separatist aspirations in the south.

Increased land-instability would not only have dire consequences for security along the 5,500 km coastline and in a maritime space vital for the economic development of the region. It would also impact Europe’s energy security, as the region accounts for 13 percent of oil and 6 percent of its gas imports.

The International Maritime Organization has been instrumental in mustering a collective response to growing insecurity at sea. Its “Strategy for sustainable maritime security measures in West and Central Africa” in support of the 2013 Gulf of Guinea Code of Conduct attests to a growing momentum to tackle threats in a maritime space of geostrategic importance.

Improving the capacity of littoral states to secure their territorial waters and patrol the high seas is essential. Military cooperation from key international security actors (France, U.K. and U.S.) with West African navies is helping to boost their capabilities. The EU’s Critical Maritime Routes in the Gulf of Guinea Program aimed at the capacity-building of coastguard forces across the vast region is another important piece of a complex security puzzle.

Yet the confluence of political, security, financial and economic factors may well tip the “Giant” into the chaos some analysts have warned about. For a region already plagued by the Ebola outbreak (Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea), political unrest in weak states (Burkina Faso) and failing or failed land-locked states (Mali, Central African Republic), this does not bode well.

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