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Fighting for Petrodollars II: What State and What Citizens?

October 28, 2012

The previous post spelled out the assumptions which underlie an approach which calls for a renegotiation of oil contracts between oil companies and the states so that citizens can get the full value of their resources. Such a proposition posits that there is an oil company on one side and the host government on the other side which do the negotiation. The reality in countries like Nigeria with an osmosis between oil companies and government proves this claim fallacious. Secondly, the renegotiation of contracts assumes that  there is a central government who negotiates on behalf of citizens: citizens do not fight directly to get a slice of the oil money. The fight for oil money in reality generates authorities which impose the function of governing (i.e. shape conducts and securing rule) in certain territories (chieftainship and community). These dispersed centers of powers disrupt the oil companies to access their compensation mechanisms and at the same time lobby for the creation of new state institutions to access federal petrodollars. Dispersed centers of power access oil money through channels not mastered by the central government. This leads us to the last assumption: there is one State and there are Citizens. The next section looks at why this might not be true for some post-independence African states.

No One State, No Citizens. As Watts explains[1] oil has been on the one hand a centralizing force and at the other a decentralizing one. It was centralizing because it was underwriting and funding the process of modernization and infrastructure building which made the central government more visible. The consolidation of a process of fiscal centralism by which oil revenue where going to the center to be then reallocated to the local states encapsulates the visibility of the central government[2]. For this reason groups attempting to get a slice of the oil bonanza looked at the federal state as a source of petro-dollars.

Oil however is a decentralizing force because it fragments the very same central authority which finances. It does so because the unit to which the oil revenues are redistributed is defined by its ethnic counters. Ethnicism become therefore the basis for political mobilization. This ignites a chain-reaction whereby (imagined) ethnic communities  attempted to access federal petro-dollars through the creation of local state institutions (as the last post highlighted). One state for one ethnic group, this, for many, was the solution to gain grip on oil revenues. The multiplication of these local governments works precisely against the formation of one state in the imaginary of the people of a country.

A discussion which looks at the remedies to oil curse through the prisms of state and citizens leads to a dead end. Both tropies, state and citizens, are realities and identities which never materialized in many least developed countries.  Citizens in Nigeria do not look at the federal state as their representative to wrestle a bigger slice of the petro-pie from the oil companies: the state has no reality for many of its citizen. When a citizen then looks at ways to get more in return for the oil resources s(he) refers to an entity other than the nation: s(he) wants the oil money to be allocated in its administrative unit or for the own ethnic community. The legacy of colonialism is that people residing in a country acquired their legal status because subject of an ethnic community. When today one talks about an equal share of oil money for all one refers to all the ethnic communities, and not to all the citizens.  As Mahmood Mamdani puts it in Africa today the group supersedes the individual: “the tribe is very largely a creation of laws drawn up by a colonial state which imposes groups identities on individual subjects and thereby institutionalizes group life”. This has one direct implications: when equality of access to oil resources is framed as equality of access of tribal communities rather than individual, any renegotiations of oil contracts will lead to more fragmentation and quarrels. As long as the superiority of the group over the individual, which is enshrined in post-colonial states, is not challenged any discussions about reallocation of oil resources will foster centripetal forces and, with them, instability.


[1] The Sinister Political Life of Community p. 115

[2] Resource Curse? P. 60

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