Of the many ways in which America’s presidential campaign can affect us in East Africa, perhaps the cat that leaped out of Mitt (fondly called Mittens) tax “ confessions”, including his association with “China” and ” Iran” seems improbable but may have the proverbial political nine lives and here is why.
- When elephants fight it is the grass that suffers. So when President Barack Obama takes it to Mittens Romney over why the Republican nominee should not have invested in a Chinese multinational like CNOOC, the fight of us (Washington) versus them (Beijing) comes right at our doorstep. China National Offshore Oil Corporation or CNOOC is one of the 2 big oil companies investing in Uganda. Uganda being the so-called “security” ally to the West, this seems a bit of a problem don’t you think?
- The thing about CNOOC is not that it’s big or that it is Chinese. Lately almost all major public works in Uganda are “Made in China”. Uganda’s largest hydropower dam Karuma has only Chinese finalists. Wait; according to Obama the problem with CNOOC was that it was schmoozing with Tehran. That rings a bell; a runner up in the Karuma bid was the Iranian company Perlite construction. Maybe this makes matters worse? But then we are talking of an American Presidential campaign so why should we care?
- But we do care. Uganda’s natural resource scene, sexed up by oil just six years ago instantly faced capture by its foreign policy interests. I know many people reading this including those who may conclude that Africa is the rural cousin of American foreign policy (what else is there but Sudan and Somalia or maybe radical Islamists?) but I disagree. The view that foreign policy is something done to African countries by the West is simply foolish. In any event a political advisor of the Ugandan President once told me ahead of the deal that brought in CNOOC that he did not want Uganda’s oil encumbered by the friction between the West and its enemies (read China and Iran). Consequently the British oil company that was farming down its assets in Uganda was tasked to balance its partners. It brought in CNOOC and France’s Total EP. This view about foreign investment in natural resources mimicking Ugandan “foreign policy” was confirmed by Mr. Museveni in the Karuma affair. He reportedly said he did not want the procurement of the hydropower dam to be caught in the gymnastics of America and its enemies in reference to the Iranian bidder, Perlite.
- Whoever comes into the White House will have to contend with the natural resource race in Africa where China is clearly a winner so far. In Uganda’s case it’s not that Chinese companies like CNOOC are eating big, including building the Presidential palace and office but because Chinese influence is more regional. In the two basins with significant resources on the East and West of the Great Rift Valley, China prevails. So what appears to be a reference to China and Iran in the US presidential race easily becomes a net outcome of some greater American foreign policy issue in the coming years? As I have argued in the past several political transitions are simultaneous with natural resource “transformations”. In Uganda’s case whoever wins the White House race will be in office when two events mature; a likely succession or political transition from Museveni to someone else and first oil, so who says this tiff between Obama and Romney is passing?
- What does this mean for Somalia? After allying with Uganda there will Somalia’s strategic place in the horn of Africa as well as its natural resources including oil, gas and an unfished shoreline be “occupied” by China or open to Iran?
- What does this mean for the hunt for Kony? We hear he is just weeks away from capture. Americans have boots on the ground.
- What does this mean for the diplomatic support Uganda looks to from Washington whenever it displays some of its unsavory episodes with crackdowns on political opponents and its liberal media?
- And there is the question of the Oval Office photo op. who becomes President is important. Maybe if Romney wins his investment in CNOOC may guarantee that opportunity? Sigh
- There are many possibilities that this passing episode in a US Presidential campaign. The mention of CNOOC however presents another erstwhile opportunity for brinkmanship. After all it’s true when elephants fight the grass suffers but in foreign policy terms sometimes the grass may have “reciprocal leverage”. As during the cold war (when a military as well as economic competition raged between the capitalist West and Communist East), African governments especially those endowed with ambitious leaders instead of suffering “ate” from both troughs. So if Obama and Romney are squaring off over a Chinese company with presence in Uganda, perhaps what it really means is that Kampala can play the coveted bride. Not all countries have large deposits of oil after all. Over to you.