Politics of Poverty

“Big Men” documentary a backstage pass to Big Oil drama

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New film weaves together a nuanced tale of global capital, local politics, and buried treasure.

Big Men promo poster low res
The promotional poster for “Big Men.”

Tell me, is there some society that you know that doesn’t run on greed? … What is greed? Of course, none of us are greedy, it’s only the other fellow who’s greedy. The world runs on individuals pursuing their separate interests. ~Milton Friedman

The oil industry is notoriously opaque and hard to penetrate. That’s why Oxfam America has had such a strong focus on transparency and the “right to know” in our campaign on oil, gas and mining impacts in developing countries. Too often citizens, civil society groups and journalists – and sometimes even governments negotiating with oil companies – have their faces pressed against a frosted pane of glass and left to wonder what’s on the other side.

Rachel Boynton’s fantastic new documentary film “Big Men” – starting a theatrical run in New York this Friday and then DC and LA on March 28 – gives you a backstage pass to the drama that unfolded in Ghana after the discovery of a huge oil find in 2007 by Kosmos Energy and partners. (I’ll be moderating Q&As after the 5 p.m. March 15th showing in New York and the March 28th 7:10 p.m. show in DC.) She goes inside board rooms and presidential living rooms, onto oil rigs and the floor of the New York Stock Exchange and weaves together a nuanced tale of global capital, local politics, and the magnetic pull of treasure buried deep beneath the Atlantic Ocean floor.

It’s a testament to the film’s narrative propulsion that I was still gripped by the story even though I’ve been working on oil in Ghana since the discovery of the “Jubilee” field in 2007.  All the issues that are of concern to us, our partners and global members of the Publish What You Pay campaign are made flesh through this riveting story. Who gets a license to explore oil and how? Who’s behind these companies (the “beneficial owners”) and what are their connections to political elites? Who bears the risk and who gets the rewards? Is the country getting a “fair deal” out of its negotiations with oil companies or is it being taken for a ride? Will the oil revenues lead to more corruption in Ghana or will the country manage to escape the “resource curse”? Finally, will Ghana’s citizens actually benefit from the more than $20 billion the government is expected to receive from oil in the next decade?

As in any good film, the characters drive the story. Jim Musselman is the CEO of Kosmos Energy at the start of the film – an affable (and quotable) Texan who had previous success in the oil-rich dictatorship of Equatorial Guinea. (“You’re going to be proud of us” he says to Ghanaians on his way to meet the Ashanti king.) Jeffrey Harris is the voice of Wall Street money at Warburg Pincus, a private equity firm that helped bankroll exploration in Ghana and is anxious to turn a profit.  George Owusu founded an obscure company called the E.O. Group and gained a license to explore in Ghana and whom, by his telling, “cold-called” Musselmans in the Dallas phone book and lured Kosmos to Ghana. And, of course, the “Big Men” in Ghana include former presidents John Kufuor and John Atta Mills who are in power during the course of the film.

One early scene is set at an oil conference I attended in Accra in 2008. A banner proclaimed “Oil – A Blessing, Not a Curse” but six years later it’s still too soon to make that judgment. When Erik Solheim, Norway’s environment minister at the time, tells the audience that Ghana should tax oil companies to the hilt, Musselman is stone faced. Afterward, Boynton’s cameras are there when Musselman tells the chairman of the Ghana’s state oil company that the “part he didn’t like” about the speech was the talk of taxes. The chairman assures him, “Oh, we won’t do it” in Ghana and that “existing agreements are agreements… you’re not going to be affected by anything.”

In Ghana, though, governments have been changing peacefully through the ballot box and Kosmos and its partner E.O. Group find themselves in much more difficult straights when former President Atta Mills comes to power in 2009. Mills pledges to revisit the Kosmos contract and the company’s plan to get rich and get out hits multiple snags.

Boynton juxtaposes the relative optimism in Ghana with the corruption, decay and violent conflict in Nigeria’s Niger Delta. Ghana has taken big steps to try to avoid the “Nigerian model” and Oxfam has invested over $1.5 million to help civil society groups push the government to put strong transparency safeguards in place. Oil company payments to government are disclosed, most contracts are in the public domain and a new watchdog body – the Public Interest and Accountability Committee (PIAC) – is in place. (Oxfam America supported a local online action campaign and other efforts to help achieve these wins.)

Oxfam partners, such as the African Center for Energy Policy, have been watching how oil revenues are collected and spent and have been flagging wasteful spending. Farmers and other citizens have been demanding that more money go to agriculture and the government has been responding positively. The PIAC, though, is starved for funds and disclosing contracts is not a legal requirement. The government continues to license blocks the way it did more than 10 years ago with the E.O. Group and Kosmos rather than through open and competitive bidding. And back in Washington the American Petroleum Institute continues to use tired and false arguments against implementation of a US law requiring oil company transparency.

Ghana now finds itself “between a blessing and a curse” and it will be flesh and blood people – real characters – who will determine the outcome. We hope active citizens will be at the forefront and I’m definitely looking forward to a “Big Men” sequel.


Oxfam America will be hosting a screening of Big Men in Washington DC this Friday night, March 28th at 7:10 p.m. at E Street Cinema. Oxfam America’s Ian Gary will be moderating a Q&A with Director Rachel Boynton after the film. Solomon Ampofo Kusi, an Oxfam partner from Ghana, will be present to answer questions as well. You can buy your advance tickets for the screening of Big Men here.

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