What Uganda can learn from Madagascar oil crisis

Monday September 06 2021

French President Emmanuel Macron (right) hosts his Madagascar counterpart Andry Rajoelina at Elysee Palace in Paris on August 27. Experts say fight for control of Madagascar’s oil by foreign country is the cause of the political instability in the country. PHOTO/ AFP

By Isaac Mufumba

On July 22, the authorities in Madagascar, a country with a very long history of military coups and political unrest since it gained independence from France in 1960, announced that a plan to assassinate President Andry Rajoelina, had been foiled.

Mr Rajoelina has made at least four claims of threats to his life since 2009 when he seized power with the help of the island nation’s military, but supporters of Mr Marc Ravalomanana, who he deposed before defeating in a controversial December 2018 poll, have often dismissed those claims.

They actually believe that the latest “assassination attempt” is an excuse for President Rajoelina to suppress the opposition and in the process consolidate his power, but the arrest of several natives and foreigners as part of “an investigation into an attack on state security” suggest that Mr Rajoelina is not crying wolf.

Oil firm implicated
The investigation had by the close of July led to the doors of Madagascar Oil, where Mr Al Njoo, the Indonesian businessman and owner of the Singapore registered Benchmark Groupe is a principal shareholder.

Madagascar Oil, said it had “received an email from the Madagascan-French citizen Paul Rafanohrana, soliciting 10 million euros for political destabilisation purposes”. Rafanoharana had deleted the emails, but were recovered from his laptop.

Madagascar Oil pledged its “full support” and “strongly any action aimed at undermining the security of a democratically elected state”.


The firm, whose flagship oil field is Tisimiroro, initially obtained oil production licence in Madagascar during the Ravalomanana presidency.

Upon assuming power in 2009, Mr Rajoelina announced that he would review individual contracts that his predecessor had agreed with foreign investors. That culminated into the cancelation in February 2019 of a licence that would have made another 44 blocks of heavy oil available to Madagascar Oil. That is believed to have driven Mr Al Njoo to move against Mr Rajoelina.

Oligarch in the spotlight
The man, who is referred to as “an aspiring oligarch,” his wife, Myoung Hi Lee, who is also a major shareholder at Benchmark Group, and their sons Daniel and Albert Njoo, have been watching events from Singapore as the heat is turned on the Madagascar Oil executive.

There are calls inside Madagascar for the state to engage Interpol to facilitate the repatriation to Madagascar of Mr Al Njoo who the media now refers to as “a greedy hyena” and “mad oligarch” to help with the investigations.

History repeating itself?
Events in Madagascar draw a parallel with what happened in the Democratic Republic of Congo on January 17, 1961 when the first legally elected Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba, was assassinated.

Lumumba had been determined to take full control and use Congo’s mineral resources to improve the living conditions of the Congolese people, but the United States and its western allies were not prepared to let that happen as chances were high that strategic raw materials would end up in the arms of their cold war rivals.

Prof Sabiiti Makara, who teaches political science at Makerere University, says multinational corporations have always been political and never pursue the interests of the countries in which they operate.

“Governments must always keep an eye on them because they always conspire with their governments or other governments to cause revolutions or dethrone the governments of the countries in which they operate,” Prof Makara says.

The end of the civil wars in Angola and Mozambique seemed to suggest that the power of the multinationals was on the wane, but Dr Phillip Apuuli Kasaija, who teaches in the School of Political Science at Makerere, says this it was always a misconception. He thinks that they are much more powerful than ever before.

“The evidence shows that the multinationals now are even more vicious because they are looking for all sorts of opportunities. Whether it is in Mozambique or any other republic wherever they are,” Dr Kasaija argues.

The French have always had a say in Madagascar. They often have a say in the ouster or installation of presidents, but Madagascar Oil is not theirs. Were they working through proxies? What then has changed?

Mr Simon Mulongo, the founding director of the East Africa Standby Force (EASF) Secretariat, argues that global competition for the control of mineral wealth and private capital has precipitated the entry of small players into a field that had always been known to be dominated by the big cats such as China and the United States and its European Allies.

“The scramble for the control of mineral wealth and the desire to amass private capital are now matters of survival. One either moves to strategically place oneself in an era of free trade or perish,” he argues.

Mr Mulongo argues that this explains the role of smaller entities such as Madagascar Oil, which do not have the kind of resources available to giants such as Saudi Aramco, the Netherlands’ Royal Dutch Shell, China’s National Petroleum Corporation, British Petroleum (BP) or Total Energies.

“So you now have a firm like Madagascar Oil, whose parentage is in a former British colony trying to direct the internal politics of a former French colony. The game is simply control of mineral wealth and making money for the shareholders,” he says.

Events in Madagascar make it imperative for us to examine how safe we are from interference. Prof Makara says it might not be easy for actors in the oil sector to destabilise Uganda because of the way the sector is structured.

“I think that it was because of concerns about state security and the capacity of oil companies to disorganise the state that government decided to diversify the ownership of the oil. We have the Chinese, the French and others. I think it would be difficult for them to reach a consensus,” Prof Makara argues.

Revival of Gaddafi dream
Dr David Babi Kamusaala, an analyst, says it is time to revive the dream of the late leader of Libya, Col Muammar Gaddafi, of a United States of Africa. Col Gaddafi envisaged a continent with an army of 1million men and 3 million police officers, a single African currency and a single passport.

Now Dr Kamusaala says this is exactly what Africa needs in order to inoculate itself against interferences into its affairs by western powers and multinational corporations.

“We should instigate the spirit of Africans working together to fight such greedy people. Really why should everybody imagine that we are everyone’s kicking ball? Why should one think that everyone can do anything in Africa? Really! Why should one think like that?” Dr Kamusaala wonders.

Col Gaddafi did not live long enough to see his dream come true. The idea was fought by those who stood to gain most from the continued balkanisation of the continent.

Suddenly there were those that preferred to see an immediate start to the unity and those that believed that it should be gradual – that African should first achieve integration at regional level through groupings such as the East African Community, South African Development Community (SADC) or the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

It is practically impossible to agree on a way forward, but whichever way one looks at it, Madagascar has shown that African needs to do something to vaccinate itself against greedy oligarchs. It is best that it did as soon as yesterday.

Is African unity possible?
The biggest challenge facing the continent is lack of leadership. The idea of a united Africa no longer has a person to champion it in the same way that Gaddafi had done. It is as if every leader is afraid of taking it up.

Mr Simon Mulongo, the founding director of the East Africa Standby Force (EASF) Secretariat, says that the achievement of a unified Africa is not possible at this point in time. He argues that Africa has to make a choice between taking the West and the multinational corporations head-on or play along, but in a more tactful manner than it has been doing.

Those who have dared take them on have always ended up capitulating. Mr Museveni introduced barter trade in his first years in power. Uganda gave maize to Tanzania and got transformers or sent beans to Yugoslavia and got roads done, but the west beat Uganda hands down by providing free corn to Tanzania and other potential barter trade partners like Mozambique.

So bad was our capitulation that by the end of the 1990s, Uganda had fully liberalised its economy and privatised and divested its public enterprises.

Prof Sabiiti Makara thinks that Africa needs to strengthen security networks and adopt an economic model that allows for more participation of its citizens in its economy.

“As a country you need to strengthen intelligence and security, but one also has to ensure that those multinational corporations work with some local companies as joint ventures. That is one of the models that is working well for the South Africa. It would work well for the rest of Africa,” Prof Makara says.