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Sierra Leone News: CHETANYA’s View:Does Sierra Leone really need oil?

CHETANYAFor a moment, the pounding in the room was deafening. “We must be happy that at least we have a company that is prepared to go the extra mile,” Member of Parliament Mohammed Sidi Tunis was forced to shout over the noise. The thundering of fists on desks came from a few dozen Members of Parliament and Paramount Chiefs who were showing their enthusiastic agreement for an amendment that would ease the ability of a foreign oil company, European Hydrocarbons Limited, to extract oil off the coast of Sierra Leone.
It was my first day in the Sierra Leone Parliament, and though I was just getting used to all the desk pounding, the enthusiasm for oil in the room was striking.
“Today I am very, very pleased that at least we have this one company…to continue the exploration and to see how they can work for the people of this country to benefit from what they call the black gold,” Tunis said.
I’ll take the enthusiasm at face value and assume that all the people in the room were excited by the prospect of Sierra Leone’s off shore oil resources enriching the country and its people.
It’s not that I can’t understand the excitement. Former Sierra Leone Democratic National Alliance Party candidate Mohamed C. Bah wrote in The Patriotic Vanguard in 2011 that producing oil would ideally allow Sierra Leone to decrease its reliance on foreign imports, and even bring in revenue by selling oil to Liberia and Guinea. A revived oil industry could provide much-needed jobs. Bah said reviving Sierra Leone’s oil industry should be “urgent” and would “[ease] the suffering on the people.”
But I have some misgivings. How do we know Sierra Leone won’t again fall victim to what an article in the Global Citizen calls the “resource curse”? This is a term referring to countries with ample resources that nevertheless remain underdeveloped. For example, Nigeria has vast oil reserves, and although oil has contributed to its economy, over 60 percent of the population still lives in poverty. Similarly, Sierra Leone has always had rich diamond resources, but the presence of these resources didn’t automatically lead to development and higher standards of living for everyday people.
In fact, oil in Nigeria has led to conflict. And as Lansana Gberie argues in his book A Dirty War in West Africa, diamonds exacerbated violence and war in Sierra Leone, as the RUF seized control of diamond deposits to fund their murderous activities. I’m not saying oil will cause another civil war in Sierra Leone, but I think it’s important to remember that unless they’re carefully managed, rich resources won’t necessarily better the lives of everyday people, or lead to sustainable growth and development in a nation. And they can sometimes cause more harm than good.
Even if Sierra Leone’s oil is well-managed, and the revenue equitably shared and used to fund development that affects people’s lives for the better, the fact is that oil should be a fuel of the past. In order for humanity to survive on this planet and halt climate change, we need to keep at least one third of all oil reserves in the ground, according to the magazine Nature.
Every time oil is burned, it contributes to climate change, which increases the risks of droughts and flooding around the world, including Sierra Leone. Last year, the chairperson of Sierra Leone’s Environmental Protection Agency noted that the country is already being affected by climate change, and farmers and coastal communities will continue to suffer from its effects.
Offshore drilling has its own problems, including risks of oil spills like the BP disaster in 2010, which devastated the Gulf of Mexico. Imagine what such a disaster would do to Sierra Leone’s fishing grounds, a resource which Sierra Leone World Bank Country Director Parminder Brar noted earlier this week, are among the best in the world. Even without an accident of this kind, West Africa Oil Watch argues that oil extraction in Sierra Leone would still result in pollution of the ocean.
As Brar said on Monday at the World Bank headquarters in Freetown, “So far as resources are concerned, this is an extremely rich country.” Oil, like diamonds, is a non-renewable resource. It’s not a long term, sustainable economic solution for many reasons, but the most basic is that it will run out. Sierra Leone deserves long-term development and prosperity. They can’t be found in oil.
*Chetanya Robinson is a journalism intern from the University of Washington in Seattle. He is the 7th intern in as many years in an internship program with Awoko Newspaper
Thursday July 21, 2016

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