Somalia recently reached a landmark agreement with Shell and Exxon Mobil to develop the vast petroleum reserves believed to lie off the troubled country’s coast. The deal rekindles a previous joint venture with the two oil giants that was cut short in 1990 when the ousting of Somali dictator Mohamed Siad Barre threw the country into a prolonged period of instability—and rekindles debates over whether oil will present greater opportunities or risks to Mogadishu.
Somalia’s new petroleum law, passed by the federal parliament earlier this year, has paved the way for this renewed exploration of the country’s extensive natural resources—estimated at as much as 100 billion barrels. The government hopes that drawing on these riches will help kickstart economic regeneration as the country’s security situation slowly but steadily improves after decades of conflict, terrorism and piracy.
Talks are now being held to enable the agreed concessions to be converted into revenue sharing agreements (RSAs) that will return 55 percent of offshore oil revenues to Somalia’s central government, with the remainder being channelled to member states. A new licensing round, covering another 15 offshore blocks, has begun, with concessions expected to be awarded early next year.
Rebuilding a damaged economy or fuelling rifts?
Concerns are nevertheless rising that the possible influx of petroleum resources may exacerbate existing rifts between Somali states. The adjacent states of Somaliland and Puntland have disputed the ownership of the oil-rich Sool and Sanaag regions for decades; if an exploration licence were granted to a foreign company, the situation could easily descend into war.
Meanwhile, the prospect of oil revenues has also added fuel to the fire of a long-running maritime border row between Somalia and Kenya. In February this year, Nairobi accused Mogadishu of an ‘illegal land grab’ after Somalia attempted to auction off oil and gas blocks from disputed territory on the border between the two countries – a flashpoint which resulted in the recall of the Kenyan ambassador and the tit-for-tat expulsion of the Somali diplomat in Nairobi. The Somali government responded by withdrawing the disputed blocks from sale, pending a judgement by the ICJ.
Learning from experience: Senegal and Equatorial Guinea
As Somalia wrestles with the question of how to benefit from its oil reserves while eschewing further strife, it has examples – both good and bad – among fellow African nations who’ve uncovered fossil fuel deposits.
Senegal, not historically an oil-producing nation, has been the site of a number of promising discoveries recently. Industry analysts have suggested that the Senegal Basin could be the “next offshore boom”—particularly likely following the announcement earlier this month that new, high-quality gas reserves have been discovered at the Greater Tortue Ahmeyim site straddling the Senegalese-Mauritanian border.
Senegal has already faced some of the troubles which inevitably accompany rich petroleum finds. The African Energy Chamber has suggested that recent allegations that the Senegalese president’s brother improperly benefitted from the awarding of oil and gas contracts in fact stemmed from an attempt to taint the reputation of both President Macky Sall and the Senegalese fossil fuel industry in general.
Senegal’s oil hopes have not been derailed, however, and Dakar is making a concerted effort to reap the maximum benefit from its oil reserves. The country’s new petroleum code, voted into law earlier this year, has brought Senegal’s legal framework for natural resources in line with industry norms, increased transparency and upped the state’s share of oil revenues.
If Dakar is so far managing to avoid the notorious “resource curse”, other African countries flush with oil have not found the fuel to be such a boon. Equatorial Guinea is practically a textbook example of a country squandering its oil reserves without returning tangible benefits to its citizens. In fact, while Equatorial Guinea’s per-capita wealth is the highest of any country in sub-Saharan Africa, government spending in areas like health and education are way below average.
That’s not to say some haven’t benefited from the oil millions: President Obiang—who has ruled the country with an iron fist since he had his uncle shot and killed in 1979— has managed to shore up the family coffers nicely, collecting race cars and mansions in Europe and America. Obiang once questioned “what right does the opposition have to criticize the actions of a government?” and spent his early years overseeing Black Beach, the most notorious prison in Africa.
Since Equatorial Guinea discovered oil, however, the despot has been more or less accepted by the international community. The once-shuttered U.S. Embassy in Malabo was reopened and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice referred to Obiang as “an old friend”.
Somalia needs to tread carefully
The cases of Senegal and Equatorial Guinea, among others, offer Somalia guidance as it attempts to use its oil to further its progress towards peace and reconciliation. The involvement of US troops has helped to push back the terrorist group al-Shabab, while the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has indicated that Somalia could qualify for debt relief as early as next spring – which would enable the government to plan public spending programmes and invest in job-creation schemes. However, regulators have cautioned that more needs to be done in the interim to tackle poverty and build a more resilient economy.
Against this backdrop, an oil boom could help Somalia rise to the challenges it faces. But it’s also possible that the influx of wealth could serve to fuel already-serious corruption. In the 2018 Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), Somalia received the highest score out of all 180 countries ranked, making it the most corrupt in the world. Tapping into oil revenues could help lift Somalis out of endemic poverty—almost three-quarters of its population survive on less than two dollars a day— but the vast cash flow this would release may also cause political corruption to thrive, as Equatorial Guinea has shown. Carefully managing any oil finds, as Senegal is trying to do, will be essential for Somalia to maintain recent progress.