Op-Ed / Africa 3 minutes

No Exit?

Despite a valiant start, impoverished, oil-rich Chad has succumbed to the resource curse. But it's not too late to escape.

When oil was first discovered in Chad, analysts reacted with reserved optimism. The country, they knew, did not have the infrastructure or political maturity to absorb the promised revenue in a way that would benefit the people. The resource curse had already devoured the politics and economics of countless mineral and petrol-rich countries, and Chad looked next on the list.

So far, the skeptics have been right. Despite a promising start, more oil dollars are now being used to procure guns and buy off opponents than build schools and feed the country's most vulnerable. Maybe it was inevitable that Chad should continue down the path of other oil producers, where poor financial mismanagement and corruption have impoverished and destabilized states. Perhaps, as Moisés Naím writes in the current issue of Foreign Policy, "the suggested defenses [against the resource curse] are as utopian as the larger goal they are supposed to help achieve."

Still, Chad had a good chance to stave off the resource curse. And it might still -- if changes start now.

Confronted with its big oil break in 2003, Chad -- a vast country that spans West and Central Africa -- set out to do things right. The government in N'Djamena sat down with expert resource-curse fighters at the World Bank and set up a plan to fight poverty with oil. In exchange for the World Bank's help financing a $4.2 billion pipeline, the government agreed to dedicate oil revenues to improving the lives of Chad's present and future populations. Petrodollars would feed into a separate account meant for social spending projects on education and health care (instead of filling out the regime's coffers). The plan was meant to quash would-be temptations for corruption before they even began. And in a country where the United Nations estimates one out of five children will die before their fifth birthday, Chad's oil-funded development projects were not only promising -- they were essential.

But when oil exploitation began in 2003, things didn't go as planned. Several coup attempts offered the government the perfect excuse to renege on its commitments. President Idriss Déby raided the revenue jar for the first time in January 2006, taking money out for national defense programs; the World Bank reacted by suspending its programs. But instead of repentance from Déby's regime, the bank got obstinacy: N'Djamena passed regulations that stripped away World Bank and civil oversight of the oil revenues. The government gradually reduced the power of the Committee of Control and Supervision of Oil Revenues (Collège de contrôle et de surveillance des revenus pétroliers), an oversight body that included civil-society members and watched over the management of the funds.

Fast-forward to today, and oil has become a means to strengthen the country's armed forces, reward its cronies, and co-opt members of the political class -- all of which guarantee that no genuine political dialogue will take place and improve governance in Chad. This has fueled antagonism between the regime and its opponents and helped keep the country in a state of political crisis and its population in abject poverty.

Meanwhile, tensions continue to mount between Chad and its neighbor, Sudan. Each country supports rebels operating on the other's turf, which provides the government with a justification for beefing up its army (instead of funding schools and clinics). As Naím puts it, "concentrated power, corruption, and the ability of governments to ignore the needs of their populations make it hard to do what it takes to resist the resource curse."

The fate of Chad would seem to prove Naím's point. But a number of steps can still dig it out. First, the government should include the question of how to use oil revenues in the domestic dialogue started in 2007. This consultation should include political opposition, civil society, and representatives of the oil-producing regions.

Second, an independent, multidisciplinary body composed of representatives of Chadian and international civil-society leaders should be created to replace the International Consultative Group. With financial support from the World Bank, its role would be to undertake studies, make recommendations, and give technical support to the Committee of Control and Supervision of Oil Revenues. Stronger oversight should be put in place to address the plague of political patronage and favoritism.

None of this will be easy, and Chad could use some help -- namely from France, the United States, and China, all of which have significant petroleum and other interests in Chad. These countries will have to stand behind a national dialogue about oil revenues in order for the government in N'Djamena to get on board. Support for Déby should be contingent on his government's reform.

So can Chad escape the resource curse? If the country redirects oil revenues, it stands a good chance of proving that petrol can be a blessing, not a curse. Oil could go far in the fight to ameliorate Chad's dire humanitarian state. But so long as Chad's resources buy guns and benefit the political elite, the resource curse shall thrive.

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