Oil turns wheels of US travel ban

Oil turns wheels of US travel ban

Chad has managed to avoid terrorist attacks such as the ones in Nigeria and Mali through its proactive security presence and screenings at border crossings. Picture: Emmanuel Braun / Reuters

Bewilderment is the term that the AU used for the inclusion of Chad on the new US travel ban list. The former head of the US Africa command called it “puzzling”, and Chad deemed it “incomprehensible”.

The move seemed to defy all logic considering Chad is one of the closest allies of the US in counterterrorism efforts in the Sahel.

Not only does the country host a US drone base, but it has hosted recent annual US-led military exercises in West Africa three times.

Chad hosts US and French forces and is considered by Western nations as an oasis of stability in a dangerous neighbourhood.

The country has managed to avoid terrorist attacks such as the ones in Nigeria and Mali through its proactive security force presence and screenings at border crossings.

Brigadier-General Donald Bolduc, until recently the commander of US Special Ops forces in Africa, has argued that the indefinite ban of Chadians entering the US “makes no sense”. The White House’s rationale for including Chad on the travel ban list is that “Chadian authorities have not been sharing information relating to public safety and terrorism with US counterparts”.

While the White House has called Chad “a haven for jihadist groups”, in reality the country has suffered the least number of Boko Haram attacks, and has pushed them back into Nigeria. Chad proved notably effective in its counterterrorism efforts, particularly its military interventions in the Central African Republic and Mali. Chad was also one of the G5 counterterrorism forces in the Sahel.

So that begs the question, what lies behind the US motivation to impose a travel ban on Chad, and whose interests does it serve? It cannot be dismissed as sheer incompetence as the US secretary of state and White House inner circle are too calculating for that.

It is prudent in such cases to “follow the money”. The most significant part of Chad’s revenue comes from oil exports, and the largest oil company operating in Chad is ExxonMobil. Rex Tillerson was ExxonMobil chief executive until he became US secretary of state in January. Scratch below the surface and the story unravels – just last year a huge showdown took place between ExxonMobil and the Chadian authorities.

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A Chadian court ordered ExxonMobil to pay $819million (R11.168bn) in unpaid royalties, in addition to a fine of $74bn. The order was almost a declaration of war on ExxonMobil considering the fine itself was almost seven times the size of Chad’s GDP, 27 times its national budget and four times the amount of BP’s Deepwater Horizon settlement.

If one considers that Chad’s current annual oil exports are worth $2.5bn, it is incredible that Chad would fine Exxon$74bn for unpaid royalties. When the fine was imposed, Tillerson did not take the provocation lightly. He has a track record of seeking revenge against countries that have treated Exxon, the company he worked at for over 41 years, unfairly. When Venezuela nationalised ExxonMobil’s assets in 2007, Tillerson made sure that the company got even.

Tillerson allegedly got the backing of the Pentagon, and the new head of state in Guyana (a US-trained general) started exploiting oil off the coast of Guyana for ExxonMobil in an area Venezuela historically claimed as its territory. Tillerson declared the 1.4billion barrels of high-quality oil found a major find, to the outrage of Venezuela.

Tillerson is still on the warpath with Venezuela, and as secretary of state has publicly threatened to orchestrate regime change there. He also ensured Venezuela was added to the latest US travel ban list.

In the case of Chad, ExxonMobil entered into negotiations with its government last year, when Tillerson was still chief executive, in order to avoid paying the fine. The issue was supposedly resolved in June this year, although details of the deal have not been made public. But three months later Chad has found itself added to the US travel ban list – a convenient form of revenge which has dumbfounded veterans of the US security establishment.

What makes the ban all the more ludicrous is the fact that Sudan, listed as a state sponsor of terror since 1997, and whose president is wanted by the International Criminal Court, was taken off the travel ban list. The United Arab Emirates was allegedly engaged in fierce lobbying in Washington to get Sudan removed from the list.The lifting of sanctions against Sudan will enable ExxonMobil to invest its oil sector.

Tillerson is a master manipulator, and the lesson which should be gleaned is that one cannot chalk up manoeuvres of the Trump administration to buffoonery. If anything they are cold and calculated, usually with the shareholders of US oil companies in mind.

* Ebrahim is Independent Media’s Group Foreign Editor.

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