The tongues of yellow flames from flaring gas burn like candlesticks lined up in a cathedral, lighting the night sky of the port city of Malabo and sending black fumes billowing upwards. In the waters offshore, oil rigs and production platforms sit majestically, sucking hundred of thousands of barrels a day from the deep sea oil fields of Equatorial Guinea.
Until a few years ago, this nation of 486,000 – consisting of five islands and a square snip of coastal West Africa between Cameroon and Gabon – was a small and insignificant sideshow in the political drama of the African continent. But the beginning of large scale oil production in 1996, along with new concerns about the security of Mideast oil supplies, has thrust West African nations like Equatorial Guinea to the forefront of the global politics of oil.
Already, 15 percent of the United States' imported oil supply comes from sub-Saharan Africa. Oil experts predict that the amount of oil the United States receives from the prolific fields of Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea and Angola will double in the next five years.
"African oil is of strategic national interest to us and it will increase and become more important as we go forward," Walter Kansteiner, assistant U.S. secretary of state for African Affairs, said during a July 2002 visit to Nigeria – the largest oil producer in West Africa with an estimated 24 billion barrels in reserve.
U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, a former oil company executive, predicted the same a year earlier, when, referring to the instability of Mideast oil, he said, "Along with Latin America, West Africa is expected to be one of the fastest-growing sources of oil and gas for the American market."