Whose oil is it anyway?

The role oil is playing in Angola

In Angola, which earlier this year was given membership of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, the ruling party does not take kindly to being bossed about by anyone. As one Angolan woman put it: "We've had enough of being told what to do by the international community. We know that all they want is our oil."

So Sarah Wykes, the veteran campaigner with the lobby group Global Witness, and with a history of trying to expose the governing elite as a kleptocracy, would not have expected a warm welcome in the oil-producing area of that country. But nor would she have expected to be arrested as a spy.

The 41-year-old was arrested last month in the enclave of Cabinda, which produces about half of the 1.5 million barrels of oil that Angola churns out each day, accused of espionage and detained for three nights. Now out on bail, she is not permitted to leave the country and must report to police in Luanda every two days. If found guilty of endangering national security, she faces eight years in prison.

British interest in Angola, the world's fastest-growing oil around BP," says Nick Shaxson, author of a book on the dirty politics of African oil, "which has several billion dollars tied up in Angola."

Wykes was in Angola to meet with local groups working on the international Publish What You Pay (PWYP) campaign, a coalition of over 300 NGOs calling for the mandatory disclosure of payments made to governments by oil, gas and mining companies. This sort of campaigning angers the Angolan government and makes the British nervous. Shaxson says BP is "terrified" of upsetting the Angolans after the company tried to publish data unilaterally in 2001 and was threatened with the termination of its contracts.

"Most people think that oil companies are telling poor Africans what to do - but in Angola it's absolutely the other way around. The companies are terrified of the Angolans," he says. A local economist described the Wykes case as "a test to see how far authorities here can abuse human rights without suffering any consequences. Luanda knows that western countries are nervous about their waning influence."

And the Angolans are nervous about Cabinda. While visiting the enclave, Wykes met Agostinho Chicaia, who is known for his work with the now banned Civic Association of Mpalabanda. His analysis is telling: "The government does not want the outside world to know about the poor state of human rights here. It only wants to promote the story of huge oil resources and huge wealth."

This article first appeared in the 12 March 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: the hidden cost of the war