Every time we fill up our tanks at the pump, we are putting wildlife and democracy at risk in Uganda. I’m not talking about the effects of climate change – that argument barely needs to be made at this point. It turns out that there is an actual geopolitical link at work between the price of oil and the survival of democracy in oil-exporting countries, and the effects will be felt much more quickly and directly than those caused by climate change.
Freedom and Oil
According to Larry Diamond, author of The Spirit of Democracy, there is not a single democracy to be found among the 23 nations that have oil and gas as their clearly dominant export. When you can derive nearly unlimited funds by selling more oil, you have no incentive to empower your people to be innovative or industrious, no reason to educate them, and, frankly, no reason to listen to them. You can buy however many votes you need, and you can afford an internal security force that can quiet any unrest.
In his book Hot, Flat and Crowded, Thomas Friedman took a close look at the relationship between the price of oil and the level of freedom for people living in oil-producing countries. He drew a graph that charted the price of oil between 1979 and 2006 against the “pace of expanding or contracting freedoms” in Russia, Nigeria, Iran and Venezuela as determined by the “Freedom in the World” report by Freedom House and the “Economic Freedom in the World” report by the Fraser Institute. He found almost a perfect inverse relationship between the two. When oil prices go down, freedom goes up. When oil prices go up, freedom goes down. This pattern held true in other countries during this period as well. The exceptions he points out are countries that had strong state institutions and government transparency before the discovery of oil.
Democracy at Risk
Recently, oil was discovered in the Albertine Rift region of western Uganda. A lot of oil. Potentially billions of barrels, some say rivaling the incredible petro-sea below Saudi Arabia. This is going to change life for Ugandans in many ways. It could be an incredible boon, but my guess is that Diamond and Friedman would see a new dictatorship on the horizon.
It is unlikely that Uganda will be included in the exceptions – countries that have “strong state institutions and government transparency.” Does this only leave the path of declining freedoms and increasing state autonomy? There have already been signs of this. President Museveni has been in office for over 23 years. In 2005, his party changed the constitution to lift the term limits to allow him to run for a third term. Nobody was surprised by his victory, or by the arrest of the opposition candidate before the election in 2006. The contracts between the oil companies and the government are not available to the public. And with this much money at stake, the government will want to keep even tighter control over the country.
Wildlife at Risk
Wildlife is already paying the price for the decrease in democracy. The Albertine Rift is one of the most biodiverse regions in the world, and also contains one of the highest human population densities anywhere. The government has already offered drilling concessions inside Murchison Falls National Park, the largest protected area in Uganda, over the objections of the Uganda Wildlife Authority. The current wells are right on the delta where the Nile River enters Lake Albert. Besides the obvious risks to the waterways, this is the area with the highest concentrations of elephants and other wildlife. There are plans to drill seven more test wells in the northern section of the park which will further disrupt the wildlife. With bountiful oil returns in their future, the government is less inclined to worry about preserving the wildlife that is critical to tourism, the third-largest foreign exchange earner in the East African country.
If Friedman and Diamond are right, the best way to protect democracy and wildlife in Uganda is to keep the price of oil low. Not the price of gas, mind you – fuel subsidies in the United States are a big reason why our consumption is so high. Given that we can’t create more oil, the best way to keep the price of a barrel low is to decrease demand. If Uganda isn’t going to turn into another mess like Nigeria, it is critical for all of us to reduce our consumption of oil-based products, encourage the development of alternative energy sources, and stay informed about how our lifestyles affect the rest of the world.