BIG MEN


 This fine documentary by Rachel Boynton gives us a picture of the complexities of Americans doing business in third world countries.  It takes a nuanced point of view throughout, showing the perspectives of all concerned—the American oil companies and investors, the governments of the countries, and the citizens of those countries.  It contrasts Ghana, the primary country in focus, with Nigeria where corruption abounds.  

 Kosmos is a small start-up oil company based in Dallas, Texas, that is one of the forerunners in finding oil in the Jubilee Field off the coast of Ghana in 2007.  This is a big deal, because Ghana had never produced oil before.  Oil prices have just shot up, and Kosmos looks to make a profit in the billions.  The oil company, created and managed by Jim Musselman, needs financial backing and secures the commitment of the Blackstone group and Warburg Pincus, private equity firms in New York.  They work hard to develop a solid relationship with the governing party in Ghana, as well as an oil company there, the EO Group.  Kosmos takes over EO’s contract with the government and makes its president, George Owusu, a partner.  He is to manage Kosmos’ affairs in Ghana.

 The Ghanans are somewhat edgy, because they have seen what has happened in Nigeria after oil was discovered, and they don’t want to make the same mistakes.  The government owns the oil business in Nigeria, which is huge; it is the fifth largest supplier to the U.S.  However, the citizens are so resentful of Nigerian officials and wealthy people skimming off so much of the profits, they have formed groups (like The Deadly Underdogs) to sabotage oil production.  They damage or outright steal pipelines and some of the oil within and sell it on the black market.  Some wealthy people are also guilty of this, and their own large oil-carrying vessels take oil to markets around the world.  “Big Men” is a term started in Nigeria, which refers to anyone with wealth.

 In 2008, Ghana hosted an oil conference to discuss how profits would be divided between foreign companies and Ghana.  A significant speaker was the Norwegian Minister of Environment, Erik Solheim, who referred to the “resource curse”, in which money from oil is not used for a country’s development but as a cash machine for politicians.  He recommended that money from a country’s resources be considered to belong primarily to the country’s citizens, and that foreign investors should be taxed liberally.  Predictably, the Kosmos people reacted to this, especially since they had already negotiated generous terms with President Kufuor, and they reasoned that they had taken the most risk compared to other oil companies in being the first to explore the field.  Kufuor reassured them that the terms would stand.

 However, Kufuor, did not realize that his ruling party was going to lose the next election, and that the new president could see things differently.  Indeed, the new president stated flatly that if his review indicated that the contract should be altered, it would be.  What follows fulfills one of Musselman’s statements about how the possibility of profit brings out the vultures who circle around for the spoils.  When it became known that the value of oil in Jubilee Field and of Kosmos was zooming up, its contract with the government became vulnerable, and there would soon be charges of corruption brought against Kosmos and Owusu and his EO company, shake-ups in Kosmos executives, and other oil companies’ vying for the rights to oil in Jubilee Field.  All this became more complicated with the world market crash in 2008, and oil prices slid from $140 a barrel to $30.  

 Boynton does a fantastic job of covering all the facets of the drama, and using the Nigerian example for contrast.  Apparently, it remains to be seen how much the people of Ghana will actually benefit from the oil in the end, even though there seems to be a number of players who would like to see that the outcome in Ghana is very different from that in Nigeria.

 I was able to have a telephone conversation with the director, Rachel Boynton, and asked her several questions.  The first had to do with her initial concept for the film.  She said she thought she would be filming in Nigeria.  She was there in 2005 when oil prices were rising and militancy against the oil companies was increasing.  Her original concept was in covering an American oil company in Nigeria.  She was interested in Kosmos because it had a good track record, they hadn’t drilled their first well yet, and other people were interested in them as well.  She attended the Offshore Technology Conference (OTC) in Houston and heard Brian Maxtax, COO of Kosmos at the time, speak.  After Kosmos started drilling their first well in Jubilee Field, she re-connected with him, and pitched the idea of doing a film in Nigeria.  She presented other possibilities as well, and they chose Ghana as the location.  

 When asked about whether there was ever a time or times that Boynton worried about her safety, she responded that her major concern was the fear of getting arrested and deported while she was in Nigeria. This was actually happening to other filmmakers there at the time.  

 Regarding a follow-up to the story, since I think anyone who sees the film will wonder how it turns out and whether Ghana is able to avoid corruptive practices most of these countries are subject to, she said that she worked on the film for seven years, and is now ready to move on.  So she will not be involved in a follow-up; however, if others are interested, Ghana’s Public Interest and Accountability Committee (PIAC) has a website where we can get reports on the matter.  This website is www.piacghana.org

 Boynton says that this is a film about money, not oil, and who has control of what when companies pursue projects in other countries.  She hoped to give a nuanced opinion about oil companies, how their projects are financed, and some of the obstacles they encounter along the way, as well as what happens in the countries they are in.

 A highly recommended film that is both interesting and enlightening.


Grade:  A  By Donna R. Copeland