Blood for oil in the Horn of Africa

First the U.S., then the Soviets, explored for oil in eastern Ethiopia. Now the Chinese are there, and paying dearly for it.


Andrew Leonard
April 24, 2007 10:43PM (UTC)

On April 24, 2006, the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), an ethnic Somalian separatist group in eastern Ethiopia, warned foreign oil companies against exploring for oil in their homeland: "So long as the Somali people of Ogaden are denied their basic rights to self-determination, the exploitation of natural resources in Ogaden for the benefit of the Ethiopian regime or any foreign firm will not be tolerated."

Exactly one year later, the Financial Times is reporting that the ONLF has taken credit for killing 65 Ethiopians and nine Chinese at an oil exploration field in northern Ogaden.

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The Chinese were employees of Zhongyuan Petroleum Exploration Bureau, a subsidiary of the huge Chinese oil company Sinopec, which had been hired by the Malaysian oil company Petronas to explore for oil and natural gas in Ogaden. But ZPEB is far from the first foreign oil company to drill in eastern Ethiopia.

In 1935, reported Time Magazine, "Emperor Haile Selassie I made a last desperate effort to forestall an Italian invasion by offering to 'rent' as much as half of Ethiopia to a big U.S. or British oil company." Ten years later Sinclair Oil nabbed a 50-year concession. Sinclair was followed by Tenneco Oil, which discovered significant deposits of natural gas in Ogaden in 1974. But all the U.S. oil companies were kicked out by the revolutionary Marxist regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam, who replaced them with the Soviet Petroleum Exploration Expedition, which drilled its own holes in the sedimentary basin of Ogaden. Not uncoincidentally, the Soviets also provided massive military assistance to Mengistu that enabled Ethiopia to successfully win complete control of Ogaden from Somalia.

Cold War power politics can be held at least partially responsible for the ongoing anarchy, chaos and war that continue to ravage the Horn of Africa and keep Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia at each other's throats. But the Cold War is over, and American and Soviet/Russian oil companies are long gone. Now it's China's turn to get embroiled in the mess. For years, the rebel activity in eastern Ethiopia between the ONLF and the government has been described as a "low-profile armed conflict." Not anymore.


Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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