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A Fading Colonial Power…A Desperate Last Grasp at Cheap Oil

By Paul Kenyon

DATELINE EDJELEH, ALGERIA, DECEMBER 1955-The history books will always record Oloibiri as the winner of Africa’s oil race, but a quiet discovery of huge commercial value had in fact been made six months earlier. The reason it is rarely mentioned, however, is because it happened in the middle of an African war zone.

The scorched village of Edjeleh lay on a plain of grit and gravel where sandstorms sometimes a mile high blew in from the Sahara, smothering the sun for days on end. Although the village was close to some promising Libyan concessions, the oil companies were never much interested in Edjeleh itself. A twitch of the cartographer’s pen had left it on the other side of the border, not in Western-friendly Libya but in Algeria.

The country was a French possession, but rebellion had exploded in 1954, and had become a fierce war of independence characterized by massacres and torture on both sides. The main reason Paris doggedly clung on while the death toll soared was the possibility of discovering gas and oil. Algeria was the French empire’s best hope. As fighting raged in the more populous regions on the coast, a French oil consortium was able, in 1955, to move unhindered into the sparsely populated southern desert. Protected by an armed unit, the exploration team managed to wheel drilling equipment to the edges of Edjeleh, almost in sight of the Libyan concessions on the other side of the border. Canvas tents were erected, and a 100-foot rig winched into place. It looked like a tower made from Meccano, but its drill penetrated hundreds of metres through solid rock. After several weeks, it broke through an ancient seal, sending a column of hot oil shooting into the sky. The French had, technically, won the race. But how could they make it pay? There was no chance of building a pipeline while the war was going on. Neither were they prepared to give it up to the Algerians.

France quickly realized that all it really required of Algeria was the empty southern desert quarter. The populated coastal region was worth nothing, though it contained a million pieds-noirs, non- Muslim settlers of European origin. Paris came up with idea of dividing the country, splitting it between a self-governing north and a French-governed south. There was no point in trying to disguise their motives. The French began to turn on the charm. If only the Algerians would trust them, they would extract the oil and share it fairly with the impoverished desert tribes. The Algerians chose not to. It seemed to them like this was a fading colonial power – France had already lost its Indo-Chinese colonies after a disastrous war – making a desperate last grasp at cheap oil. The war dragged on for eight years, putting Edjeleh out of play.

But what about the corresponding piece of land over the border? It was possible they could drill into the same geological structure from the Libyan side.

Oil companies stampeded to pay court to King Idris. They purchased forty-five concessions in just two months, and a spree of urgent drilling began. The borderlands around Edjeleh yielded nothing of value, and the whole circus departed as quickly as it had arrived. The next destination was Libya’s Sirte Basin, where Esso, the most prolific of drillers, was about to become involved in one of the oil industry’s luckiest-ever steals, a discovery that would make Libya the hottest property in Africa.

There was a vacant strip of land in the scorched moonscape of the Sirte Basin. It lay between two concessions, and remained unclaimed because it seemed to have no potential. On one side was Esso, on the other, Mobil. The Libyans were unhappy about dead acreage in (the middle of their quilt-work of expensive desert. They offered it to Mobil, but Mobil said no. Esso was minded to do the same, but the Libyans badgered the company until it agreed to take the concession. Esso called in its seismic team to carry out a quick survey of the neglected plot.

When the first data began arriving at their tented base in the desert, They thought it must be a mistake. The figures seemed to indicate that, right beneath their feet, was an oilfield of spectacular proportions.  They quietly rolled in the rig and began drilling. It was the spring of 1959. A mile beneath the Libyan desert, Esso hit the jackpot.

It was a staggering find. There were 2Billion barrels of oil down there, with several interconnecting reservoirs that promised more. It became known as the Zelten Field and heralded an unseemly Libyan oil rush.

Excerpted from Dictatorland: The Men Who Stole Africa, first published in the UK in 2018 by Head of Zeus Ltd.




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