Ghana bids to break Africa’s oil curse

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As Ghana awaits the first riches from one of Africa’s top oil finds of the decade, expectations on the street are high and rising.

“I believe in the oil,” said grocery vendor Grace Asantewaa from behind her meager stall of tomatoes and chili peppers at the Agbogbloshie market in the capital Accra.

“We are sure everything will change in the name of Jesus,” predicted the 36-year-old mother-of-two, echoing widespread dreams of a more comfortable life once production from the Jubilee offshore field gets going in December this year.

With reserves of 800 million barrels of high-quality oil and potential for at least one billion more, the offshore Jubilee field could make Ghana the fifth largest oil nation in sub-Saharan Africa after Nigeria, Angola, Sudan and Gabon.

But first it must avoid the mistakes of others in the Gulf of Guinea, which the U.S. National Intelligence Council expects to provide a quarter of American oil by 2015 and which this year is already shipping record numbers of oil cargoes to Asia.

The International Monetary Fund predicts that if Ghana uses the windfall from the 2007 discovery wisely, it could reach the status of a middle-income country within a decade.

That would lift it from its World Bank rank of poor state alongside Haiti and Liberia to the more comfortable league of the likes of Morocco and Thailand — a game-changer in a country where a third of the 25 million population are in poverty and foreign aid accounts for nearly 10 percent of national income.

“How do we lift it, transport it, consume it, and finance it?” U.S. emerging markets broker Jonathan Auerbach said on a trip to Ghana, of the questions oil raises.

“Accept it,” he said. “This is the great game for Ghana.”

TOXIC OIL

Mention Nigeria to Ghanaians and there is an instant recoil at their own possible fate: oil-fueled civil strife, rampant political corruption and the paradoxical outcome of declining living standards that they have seen for millions of Nigerians.

Congo Republic and Angola have suffered internal conflicts partly fueled by jostling over oil. Aid watchdogs say Chad, whose oil is exported through the gulf, broke pledges to use energy revenues to ease poverty and bought arms instead.

Tiny Gabon and Equatorial Guinea have been more peaceful, but their petrodollars have bypassed the people to fund their elites’ luxury real estate and sports cars, according to evidence for a French anti-graft hearing last year (the trial was blocked on a technicality).

Ghanaians fear the “resource curse” — when a find becomes an albatross round the neck of a country as other industries are crowded out, its leaders become corrupt and its public finances fluctuate at the whim of volatile energy markets.

“Country after country make big promises and then go on to make the same mistakes,” said independent consultant Antony Goldman, who has studied oil’s effect on Nigeria and others.

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