In February 1994, Robert Kaplan published an article in The Atlantic Monthly titled “The Coming Anarchy.” He had traveled through several countries in western Africa the previous year, and claimed that all he saw was anarchy, tribal war, disease, corrupt elites, and a cowed populace. Kaplan’s article, taken up by U.S. Department of State officials and faxed to American embassies all over the world, was to pave the way for a slew of books and magazine articles dutifully echoing what is now known in academic and media circles as Afro-pessimism.

John Ghazvinian’s new book, Untapped, is a powerful rebuttal of the prevailing view that nothing good can ever come out of the continent. This is a remarkable achievement, given that Ghazvinian’s subject is oil and the ongoing vicious scramble for it in the Gulf of Guinea countries, West Africa’s emerging oil belt.

Oil production has left a trail of corruption, political authoritarianism, violent conflict, and environmental devastation wherever prospectors have set down their rigs in Africa and other parts of the world still struggling to escape the crippling legacies of colonial plunder. But Ghazvinian counterbalances this grim narrative with touching stories of ordinary people fighting to call their governments to account and to transform oil’s role in Africa from a “resource-curse” into an instrument driving prosperity and civic resurgence. More importantly, he provides the historical context of colonial rule and failed World Bank and IMF policies, without which it is impossible to understand the seeming inability of such African oil giants as Nigeria and Angola to use their burgeoning oil receipts to finance quality education, health care, and other social goods for their impoverished populace.

The war in Iraq, growing instability in the oil-producing Persian Gulf, and industry fears that global oil production has peaked have forced Africa’s oil belt onto the Bush administration’s radar. American oil companies are pouring billions of dollars in new investment into the Gulf of Guinea. The U.S. has established AFRICOM, a new military command for Africa, to protect these investments. Energy-thirsty China is also looking to Africa’s oil to power its economic expansion. India, Brazil, and South Africa are knocking on the door.

Untapped brilliantly traces the labyrinthine contours of what is clearly shaping into a new cold war for Africa’s oil. Part travelogue and part frontline political reporting, Untapped utilizes fine writing and perceptive observation to give us a cautionary tale of what the lethal mix of Big Oil and bad politics can do to the weak and unprotected if we elect to play the role of unconcerned spectators.