Tribeca – Big Men, Big Oil, Big Money
Big Men (at the Tribeca Film Festival) drills away at the exploitation of the oil riches of two African countries – Ghana and Nigeria. Is that wealth a resource curse — a characterization that’s used widely with depressing validity — or is it an opportunity?
It’s an unkept promise – how’s that for a euphemism?
Filmmaker Rachel Boynton visits both countries in her film, which takes its title from the notion, advanced by one African observer, that enriching oneself is part of human nature. “We all want to be big men,” he tells Boynton. Everything’s relative, but both Africa and Wall Street are proving him right.
If Texas isn’t big, what is? Big Men (produced by Steven Shainberg, who is Boynton’s husband, and exec-produced by a very big Brad Pitt) follows a Texas firm’s gambit to make big men out of Wall Street investors, Texas oil explorers and Ghanaian businessmen. The payoff, we’re told, will be wealth for Ghana, as long as there’s a lot more wealth generated for the Americans who took the risk, and far more for their bankers on Wall Street.
Could Ghana become Nigeria, a place of vast human potential and vaster chaos where it takes hours to cross Lagos by car, where corruption rules, and where the 99% of the population has seen its future ruined by a petroleum klept-ocracy? Bear in mind that Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country. In cinematic terms, we see Nigeria as a place of urban squalor as far as the eye can see, and a river delta (reminiscent of the bayous of Louisiana, another oil-rich region famed for its corruption and environmental toxicity) where oil runs in the river and smoke from pipeline arson fills the air. Guerilla groups rule sections of it. You won’t see women among them, a reflection of their Islamic fervor. When you have frightening pictures like those, the promise of being “run” by efficient American specialists working for oil companies seems attractive.
The company is Kosmos Ltd., oil drilling specialists from Texas, bankrolled by investors rounded up by Warburg Pincus. The deal with Ghana was that Kosmos would keep a vast percentage of the oil revenue, because the company and its investors had taken the risk. What did the Ghanaians know? The pro-business Ghanaian president with whom Kosmos negotiated the deal ended up losing an election, and a more populist regime followed. The Ghanaian who ran the company locally came under investigation.
As efforts to reopen a contract that seemed overly favorable to the oil company continued, oil gushed out of the sea, and investors and the company they hired made money, lots of money. Don’t forget that Wall Street is dictating the terms of African modernization. If that sounds colonial, it is.
Boynton got enviable access to businessmen and bankers preparing to launch the project, and to rebels in the delta. These fighters are not the murderous child soldiers whom we saw ravage West Africa in earlier years, but Nigeria is a volatile enough place that things could risk getting even uglier. We get a sense of the hopelessness there, as pipelines burn and black entrepreneurs profit from spilloff while politicians enrich themselves. As bad as things seem, they are probably worse than what we see in the film — and Nigeria is the fifth most important supplier of oil to the US.
Forget about the notion of a state being too big to fail. It’s a place that makes The Ambassador, the Danish mock-umentary by Mads Brugger, look encouraging. (Bear in mind that there are oil-rich disasters closer to home. With all the petroleum wealth in Mexico, millions of Mexicans risk their lives to leave that country, where corrupt officials can’t control a narco-state.)
Ghana (which we don’t see by way of the landscape, as we do Nigeria) presents a sad dilemma. It was one of the early African countries to try to make its way autonomously after independence, under Kwame Nkrumah, who was educated in the US. These days, Ghana’s most important export is still its own people. Go to Israel – not the obvious destination of choice for Africans seeking a better life – and you’ll find thousands of Ghanaians who speak perfect Hebrew.)
Now Ghanaians are watching as an American company gets rich on its resources. Will Ghana become a mini-Nigeria, or will it prosper as a result? There’s not much hope for any country that lacks the institutions to make prosperity possible. We’ll have to wait for a sequel.