It is gold rush all over in West Africa again. However, it is not just a gold rush, the coast line of West Africa is flowing also with the next best thing to gold, crude oil.
Alassane Ouattara, ECOWAS Chairman
Several West African countries are fast joining Nigeria as crude oil producers. Ghana currently produces 80,000 barrels of crude oil per day (bpd) with a good chance of it rising to 120,000 barrels per day by the end 2012. Cameroon produces 59,000 bpd, Ivory Coast 40,000 bpd while more established producers in the region like Equatorial Guinea produces 200,000 bpd and Gabon 230,000 bpd.
Ghana’s production is expected to increase to about 350,000 bpd within the next three years. Sierra Leone and Liberia are also set to join the train of oil producers in West Africa.
African Petroleum Corp, an Australian listed firm in late February announced that it had made a significant oil discovery from one of its oil wells in Liberia.
"Narina-1 has identified a potentially large accumulation of light good quality oil at the Turonian level as well as excellent quality oil in the Albian," chief executive Karl Thompson said in a statement.
The company also announced the commencement of an “extensive exploration and appraisal programme in Liberia in 2012” which may lead to more crude oil discovery in Liberia.
Chevron Corp, the second-largest U.S. oil company is also planning to start the exploration of the first of two oil wells planned for this year by the end of the first half of 2012 in Liberia.
Anadarko said in January it struck "significant" light oil off Ghana in its Deepwater Tano Block, the latest in a string of discoveries in the area.
In Gabon, which is already an oil producer, French oil major Total revived its exploration efforts by buying stakes in three onshore licences. Total SA is also investing $200 million in 2012 in drilling an oil block in a Joint Development Zone (JDZ) between Sao Tome and Nigeria.
Also exploration activities are currently on going by Tullow Oil and Anadarko in offshore Ghana, Sierra Leone and Liberia while UK based Bowleven, Kosmos Energy and Victoria Oil and Gas are also carrying out oil prospecting in Cameroon. These are efforts are likely to define the energy potential of the West Africa coastal line.
The vast amount of solid mineral lying untapped in Africa is also attracting high level investment into West Africa. Top bauxite exporter Guinea and major gold producer Ghana, have attracted billions of dollars of investment from resource firms eager to dig up its vast unexploited iron ore reserves.
It is estimated that West Africa currently has the potential to produce nearly 10 percent of the world's iron ore in future. This is driving investments into West Africa from top miners like BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto, Vale and Chinalco which are expected to make as much as $10 billion in new investments within the next few years in mining activities in West Africa.
Liberia has already started iron ore shipments, while Sierra Leone expects mines to start production soon. Also Cameroon's large Mbalam deposit and Guinea's Simandou project could start shipping as early as 2014 according to a Reuters report.
Guinea is also in advanced talks with state-owned China Power Investment to develop a bauxite mine and build an alumina refinery, deep water port and a power plant.
But while investors have renewed their love for West Africa, so has the tendency for the region to fall apart increased. From Nigeria to the Sahel deserts of Mali, renewed violence is putting pressure on the peace that is required to ensure that these new massive investments in the region make an impact on the livelihoods of West Africans.
In Nigeria, suspected Al-Queda linked militants are tearing the Northern region apart with daily bombing raids that gives the impression that the country’s security agencies have no idea how to handle the crisis. In the South South region of Nigeria, there also seem to be a resurgence of militant activities that almost crippled the country’s oil production in 2008. Crude oil theft and piracy has also increased sharply in the South South spreading to coast line of West Africa.
Also West African countries are fast becoming the main transit route for hard drugs. . The United Nations estimates that $1 billion worth of cocaine, destined for Europe from Latin America, passed through West Africa in 2008. Guinea Bissau has become West Africa’s cocaine transit point due to its weak government. The situation in Guinea Bissau has been made worse by the death of the country’s President Malam Bacia Sanha early this year raising the possibility of the military taking over the country.
In Mali, Tuareg-led MNLA fighters have revived their quest for independence with attacks against the Malian security forces. There are speculations that MNLA fighters are receiving support from rebels from Chad, Algeria and Nigeria. They are also said to be well armed with weapons from Tuaregs returning from Libya. This has ensured that they are not only well armed, but they are battle ready and have been able to inflict significant casualties on Malian Security forces.
In Senegal there is a resurgence in an on-off low-level rebellion in the Casamance region, now entering its fourth decade, which has been made worse by the quest by the country’s 84 year President Wade to seek another term in office. Several people have already been killed or displaced since the violence in the Casamance region picked up again this year. There is fear that the rebel activities in the region may have been fuelled by arms and ammunition smuggled by fighters from Libya.
Ivory Coast just emerged from a long drawn violent conflict that almost tore the country apart while there is an uneasy calm in Bukina Faso and Togo where the leaders have managed to strong arm themselves into keeping the position quiet. However, most analysts say the peace in these countries may not be sustainable. Even Countries like Ghana, which is considered to have the best democracy in the region, are not considered save if the violence in the other countries in the region is not checked.
Gradually, the emerging trend is a West African region on the verge of breaking long years of poverty and under development however that prospect is being undermined by internal divisions that may ensure development continue to elude the region.