The Primacy of Profit: Rachel Boynton’s Big Men Explores the Oil Industry and its Impact in Africa

Last Friday, March 28, the film Big Men made its Washington, D.C. debut during a screening and question-and-answer session with director Rachel Boynton at the E Street Cinema. Shot over a period of roughly seven years, Big Men portrays the dramatic story of Ghana’s Jubilee oil field and boardroom decisions, local politics and powerful market forces that have shaped its industrialization. Kosmos Energy is the particular focus of the film, as Boynton and her crew capture the firm’s quest to maintain the terms of their (reportedly very favorably) contract to exploit Jubilee during the tumult of the global financial crisis, a U.S. Justice Department probe into potential Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) violations, and the 2008 Ghanaian presidential election, where then-candidate the late John Atta Mills publicly committed to review the terms of the company’s stake. Interspersed throughout all of this is incredible footage from Nigeria’s Niger Delta, offering viewers terrifying examples of the environmental damage, militancy and extreme poverty that could await Ghanaians should their leaders fail to properly manage their new oil riches.

Big Men has received rave reviews across the United States, with critics particularly citing the unbelievable access the filmmakers received to the leadership of Kosmos Energy and the intimate glimpse it provides viewers into how companies, governments, and market actors surge, compete and cooperate to profit from sub-Saharan Africa’s natural resources. Indeed, some of the most striking scenes of Big Men occur as the film takes viewers inside the private residence of the former Ghanaian President John Kufuor and capture unbelievably honest assessments from former Kosmos CEO Jim Musselman on the importance of profit as a driving factor in all decisions, including the FCPA investigation and ultimately his own ouster from the company’s leadership. 

Critics have also argued, however, that Big Men unfairly combines the cases of Nigeria and Ghana, pointing out the many contrasts between the two countries: Ghana’s oil industry is located offshore, for example, and has been subject to the scrutiny of the country’s vibrant civil society and free press. Nigeria’s oil was first extracted under a military junta decades ago, and has long been a burden to the communities that live directly alongside its network of pipelines, gas flares and devastatingly frequent oil spills.

Nevertheless, the consensus of the March 28th discussion was that Big Men presents a timely and compelling depiction of a depressing reality: The quest for profit on the part of highly empowered market actors and politicians continues (in far too many cases) to run contrary to the painstaking work of properly developing oil revenues for the benefit of everyday Africans. Indeed, during Friday’s Q&A session, Boynton reinforced this point, describing her understanding that virtually nothing changed in Kosmos’ contract with the government of Ghana, despite the Justice Department investigation and forceful campaign rhetoric of President Mills, which she captures so effectively throughout Big Men’s 1 hour and 40 minutes. 

The moderator of Friday’s screening, Ian Gary, Oxfam America’s senior policy manager for extractive industries, and Q&A session panelist Solomon Ampofo Kusi from the Ghanaian environmental protection group, Friends of the Nation, gave insightful commentary on the film and updated the audience with the latest information on Ghana’s oil policy. Gary is also a frequent collaborator of the Africa Growth Initiative, and recently co-hosted a major forum at Brookings on oil and gas management in East Africa. These issues have long been a center part of our research agenda, and just this week our partner in Uganda, the Economic Policy Research Center, is completing the first stage of a major baseline assessment of livelihood and environmental conditions in the oil-rich region of Uganda’s Lake Albert area.