When oil was found in 1996 in Equatorial Guinea, the former Spanish colony in West Africa was one of the poorest countries in the world. Today, this small and sparsely populated country of 465,000 inhabitants has an offshore production of 350,000 barrels a day, making it the third-largest sub-Saharan producer of oil, behind Nigeria and Angola. According to the African Development Bank, a year after oil was found, gross domestic product went up 76 percent.
In my role as a public health consultant, I recently visited Equatorial Guinea for the first time since 1993. After more than a decade, despite the oil boom, I was unable to see any improvements in the living standards of ordinary people. Malaria is still rampant and the main cause of death among children under 5, and child morbidity and mortality have not improved significantly in the past several years.
Since the mid-1990s, several countries in sub-Saharan Africa - others are Nigeria, Angola and Gabon - have experienced strong revenue growth from the petroleum industry. In most cases, however, this new wealth is not contributing to economic development or improving living standards. Rather, it has been used almost exclusively for the enrichment of the countries' leaders, and as a consequence most of the population remains poor and unprotected.
Sub-Saharan Africa's production - more than 4 million barrels of oil a day - surpasses that of Iran, Venezuela and Mexico combined, and the region has the potential to become as important a crude oil resource as Russia or the Caspian Sea. The area has the additional advantage of being more politically stable than the Middle East, at least at this time.
According to estimates by the U.S. National Intelligence Council, sub-Saharan Africa could fill up to 25 percent of U.S. fossil fuel needs by 2015, up from 16 percent now.
But little of the region's oil wealth is finding its way to the population, either directly or in improved health and social services. At the same time, while oil production has continually increased, production of traditional exports such as coffee and cacao has dramatically declined.
In Equatorial Guinea, more than 70 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, and the majority of those living in the largest cities lack access to safe drinking water and sanitation services. The immunization rate for the most prevalent diseases is relatively low, making children prone to diseases that could be easily preventable by vaccination. Almost 20 percent of children under 5 are malnourished, almost 5 percent severely so. At the same time, maternal mortality, which is a good measure of health coverage and the quality of health services, remains very high.
Most of Equatorial Guinea's primary and secondary schools don't support basic conditions for children's education. Sixty percent of schools don't have potable water, and 50 percent don't have toilet facilities. As a result, there is a high rate of children dropping out of school or repeating classes. In some schools, there are up to 96 students per room.
The situation is similar in Angola. According to two nongovernmental organizations, Human Rights Watch and Global Witness, from 1997 to 2002 more than $4 billion disappeared from the state budget. At the same time, Angola's president, Jose Eduardo dos Santos, has become one of the world's 50 richest people, while most of Angola's population lives in misery and sectors of the population are ravaged by the AIDS pandemic.
Official corruption on such a scale would be more difficult if global oil, gas and mining companies made public all their payments to the governments involved. In 2002, an international coalition of 130 nongovernmental organizations began a campaign called "Publish What You Pay" to demand such disclosure.
A new experience in Chad also provides a model for oil-rich African countries. Chad expects to receive more than $2 billion in oil revenue in the next 20 years and is committed to spending 80 percent of its new earnings on building schools, clinics and roads, and fulfilling other basic needs. Most of the money is held by the World Bank in a London account, and a citizens' committee oversees its expenditures.
The main responsibility for African people's welfare, however, lies with government leaders, who have the power to turn the oil boom into a blessing or a curse.
(Cesar Chelala is an international public health consultant and writer on human rights issues.)