Now that Kenya is set to enter the league of oil-producing nations, the country may want to examine a little more closely its relationship with foreign governments and companies seeking to extract oil and other natural resources from our land and shores.
John Perkins’s book, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, might be a good place to start. The book, which has become an international “word-of-mouth bestseller” describes in shocking detail how American corporations and the US government “tamed” oil-producing nations such as Saudi Arabia to toe the line after the oil embargo of the 1970s, and how this stifled dissent and nurtured dictatorships.
In his capacity as an “Economic Hit Man” for a large engineering firm based in Boston in the 1970s, Perkins’s job was to convince countries with abundant natural resources in Asia, the Middle East and Latin America to accept enormous loans for infrastructure projects and to get guarantees that the contracts for these projects went to well-connected US corporations.
It was a highly lucrative job that entailed lying to poor countries about their economic prospects on behalf of big government-backed corporations in the US to secure proceeds from any anticipated wealth before the countries could decide what to do with it.
Many of these countries then used their oil and natural resource wealth to service these loans and procure other US-based services.
In other words, the United States not only got the contracts for the projects, but also ensured that the natural resources in these countries were used to serve its own economic and political interests.
Perkins confesses that he was instrumental in convincing the Saudi royal family to agree to invest billions of dollars of the kingdom’s oil income in US securities and in urging it to allow the US Department of the Treasury to use the interest from those investments to hire American firms to build power and water systems, highways, ports and cities in Saudi Arabia.
In exchange, the US guaranteed the royal family unconditional political and military support.
It was a deal that ensured that the royal family ruled Saudi Arabia as long as the country had oil and beyond, thereby stemming any type of democratic governance that the Saudi population may have desired.
These kinds of deals were repeated in other countries across Asia and Latin America where people’s movements or socialist leaders threatened US interests, particularly in relation to the latter’s access to natural resources. In Iran, Indonesia, Panama and Colombia, Perkins made similar deals on behalf of his engineering firm.
However, the guilt of cheating countries out of their own wealth finally forced him to resign. Perkins confesses that his firm’s concerns about the environment and social justice took a back seat to greed, something he could not accept.
When the guilt of inflicting more poverty and indebtedness on poor countries became unbearable for him, he quit. “Although I enjoyed my successes and my life as a family man,” he writes, “I could not fight my moments of severe depression. I was now the father of a young girl, and I feared for the future she would inherit . . . I could not help wondering where all this would lead us.
“By the late 1980s, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the world communist movement, it became apparent that deterring communism was not the goal; it was equally obvious that the global empire, which was rooted in capitalism, would have free reign.”
He concluded that he was a mere cog in the big wheel of a global US empire where the pursuit of wealth had become a religion, even when its practice proved to be harmful.
Perkins believes that the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and other acts of aggression against the United States are a consequence of US ambitions to become a “global empire”, even if it meant ignoring questions related to social justice, the environment, and people’s desire to be in charge of their own destiny.
The book has important lessons for Kenyan policymakers, especially now that other powerful governments such as China, are demonstrating imperial ambitions of their own.