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African oil's allure increases as other regions tighten reins on foreign companies

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DAKAR, Senegal (AP) - Angola is joining OPEC, African oil exploration is booming and China is investing. The stampede for African oil has continued, even as militant attacks in some countries and precarious governments in others make returns uncertain. 

Though much of the continent is just as conflict-ridden as the Middle East, analysts say Africa is increasingly attractive because it's one of a diminishing number of regions still welcoming foreign corporations.

"It's one of the few places still where in virtually every country the international oil companies can invest," said Julian Lee, senior energy analyst at London's Center for Global Energy Studies. "I can't think of anywhere in Africa that has not let in international companies."

The Middle East, which has nearly 60 percent of the world's proven reserves, operates mainly through state-owned companies. Meanwhile, South American policies have become increasingly nationalistic.

"President Chavez of Venezuela has basically politicized Latin American oil," said Mehdi Varzi, who heads an independent oil consultancy in London. "He's gone back on many of the agreements which the previous administration signed in the 1990s. And it's had an effect in Bolivia, in Peru."

In early 2006, Hugo Chavez forced retooled contracts on foreign oil companies, guaranteeing the state a 60 percent share. Bolivia nationalized its petroleum industry in May with similar conditions, while strong leftist parties in Peru and Ecuador have made private corporations increasingly wary in the whole part of the world.

Russia, the second-biggest oil exporter after Saudi Arabia, took over much of its former oil giant Yukos early this year and has continued to tighten its control over foreign companies.

Varzi said nationalization isn't often even an option for African countries with poor infrastructure and little technical expertise to develop an oil sector on their own.

Mauritania, Africa's newest oil producer, was long only a potential oil exporter until a deal with a team led by Australia's Woodside Petroleum Ltd. led to offshore finds in 2001. Though the northwest African country's reserves are small by world standards -- about 1 billion barrels -- the government estimates that it will see oil revenue of $350 million in 2006, it's first year of production. That's major revenue for one of the world's poorest nations. Woodside owns the largest stake of the field at nearly 48 percent, and the Mauritanian government owns 12 percent.

Foreigners also show no signs of leaving Nigeria, even though normal daily production of 2.5 million barrels has been cut by a quarter in attacks by militant groups angling for a greater share of oil wealth.

The West African country, Africa's biggest oil producer and the fifth-largest supplier to the United States, hosts multinationals like Royal Dutch Shell PLC and Italian oil firm Eni SpA in profit-sharing agreements with state-owned companies. In a stark contrast to Russia and Venezuela, the Nigerian government is making efforts to privatize more of its oil operations, according to Shell financial reports. The government has a majority share in Shell partnerships and the petroleum sector accounts for about 80 percent of Nigeria's revenue.

And African oil development has it's own problems that can trump those of the Arab world. Nigeria is often near the top of lists of the world's most corrupt countries, as is Angola. Much business in both countries takes place in an informal economy. And long histories of coups in many regions means new governments can't always be counted on to keep old promises.

And while Africa will never compete with the Middle East, there's plenty of oil to be found. The continent's proven oil reserves more than doubled between 1980 and 2005 to 114.3 billion barrels, according to the BP Statistical Handbook. That's a growth rate comparable to the Middle East and far outpacing a worldwide increase of 84 percent during the same period.

African production rose about 60 percent during the same time and now accounts for about 12 percent of the world's oil.

There's enough demand that though U.S. and European companies have largely stayed away from politically charged Sudan, the country has found foreign investment from Asia. China is the primary foreign investor in Sudanese oil fields and Sudanese oil makes of about 5 percent of China's oil. China has not showed any signs of decreasing involvement, despite the continuing threat of U.N. sanctions over Sudan's refusal to allow U.N. peacekeepers in to help deal with the crisis in its Darfur region.

"There's the phenomenon of countries that Western countries may not be able to do business in that become a niche for other countries," Eurasia Group analyst Greg Priddy said.

Over the past decade, many poor African countries have moved toward privatization of state-owned enterprises under the advice of the World Bank to encourage foreign investment. In an October report, The World Bank encouraged Angola -- Africa's second-largest producer after Nigeria and one of the continent's fastest growing oil powers -- to do more to encourage private investment.

Peter Egom, an economist and research fellow at the Nigeria's Institute of International Affairs, argued that Africa should aspire to oil nationalism.

"Africa does not lack for manpower and know-how for indigenizing her oil and gas industries and this is especially so for Nigeria, the anchor nation of Africa," Egom said. He argued that the major stumbling block for African oil producers was the lack of financial means, as nations with weak currencies try to compete in an industry where the U.S. dollar is the currency of trade.

Venezuela has worked hard this year to befriend to African nations in a sign that the country could be pushing similar theories. Chavez attended an African Union summit in Gambia this summer and pushed for South American-African partnerships. A conference between South American and African countries last month ended with an agreement to explore natural resource collaborations.

Many activists argue that regardless of how good or bad the terms of the deals are, the citizens of many of Africa's oil-producing countries are losing out as their governments make do little to spread oil wealth among populations. Most Nigerians continue to live in poverty, while the World Bank has accused Chad of reneging on an agreement to use profits from a Bank-funded pipeline to reduce poverty.

Yet even as Africa tries to decide the best way to exploit its in-demand resource, some analysts say the continent's promise of vast oil reserves has been overhyped.

"The idea was that (Africa) was going to reverse the global decline," said Jonathan Bearman, managing director of London-based Clearwater Research Services -- which evaluates risk for energy companies. "But I think some of the expectations have been moderated. The drilling results have not lived up to expectations."

Bearman said offshore wells in Nigeria have had a success rate of about one in three, compared with earlier success rates of one in two for onshore Nigerian wells.

"The costs are going up and the pace of development is very slow," Beerman said.

Eurasia's Priddy said that much of Africa's oil is more expensive to extract than oil in the Middle East -- meaning that the continent may appear to be full of opportunity only as long as oil prices stay high.

Oil prices rose more than a dollar to close above $62 a barrel Thursday after OPEC pledged at a meeting in Nigeria's capital of Abuja to cut production in February by half a million barrels a day.