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Popular perceptions of corruption, poverty and the ‘resource curse’ in the oil-rich Gulf of Guinea can be caricatured as belonging to (or falling between) two possible positions. First, the fault lies with oil companies, exploiting, bribing and otherwise abusing innocent Africans. Second, the blame lies with corrupt African rulers, stealing the oil money. There is truth in each position, but this is now a stale, unhelpful debate, obscuring other aspects of the problem. Several themes merit more attention. First, taxation in resource-dependent states is different from what is found in other types of economy. Second, transparency and anti-corruption schemes like the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative focus on revenue flows inside countries, ignoring crucially important transnational flows. Third, natural resources provoke competition and factional politics, fragmenting the public interest. These three lead to a fourth way of conceptualizing the issue–as a systemic one, which is not ultimately the result of bad behaviour (or even of ‘culture’). We should move away from focusing too much on actors and behaviour and instead focus on systems and processes, a shift that will result in different (or additional) policy prescriptions, new (or expanded) branches of economics and political science. This article does not depend on statistical analysis but instead takes a bottom-up view, based on nearly 15 years' research into oil and politics in sub-Saharan Africa, including interviews with numerous key players, to explore the dynamics of the resource curse.