[Marxism] Nigeria: Worse Than Iraq?

David Altman altman_d at hotmail.com
Sat Mar 11 07:17:12 MST 2006

Nigeria: Worse than Iraq?

Foreign Affairs

Worse Than Iraq?

Nigeria's president and onetime hope for a stable future is leading his 
country toward implosion—and possible U.S. military intervention

by Jeffrey Tayler

With an ethnically and religiously combustible population of 130 million, 
Nigeria is lurching toward disaster, and the stakes are high—for both 
Nigeria and the United States. An OPEC member since 1971, Nigeria has 35.9 
billion barrels of proven petroleum reserves—the largest of any African 
country and the eighth largest on earth. It exports some 2.5 million barrels 
of oil a day, and the government plans to nearly double that amount by 2010. 
Nigeria is the fifth-largest supplier of oil to the United States; U.S. 
energy officials predict that within ten years it and the Gulf of Guinea 
region will provide a quarter of America's crude.

It is hardly surprising, then, that since 9/11 the Bush administration has 
courted Nigeria as an alternative to volatile petro-states in the Middle 
East and Latin America. In 2002, the White House declared the oil of Africa 
(five other countries on the continent are also key producers) a "strategic 
national interest"—meaning that the United States would use military force, 
if necessary, to protect it. In short, Nigeria's troubles could become 
America's and, like those of the Persian Gulf, cost us dearly in blood and 

Moreover, Nigeria's problems far exceed those of the petro-states the 
administration hopes to sidestep. They begin with the ad hoc nature and 
impossible structure of the country, which even a leading Nigerian 
nationalist called "a mere geographical expression." The entity of Nigeria 
was cobbled together to serve London's economic interests. Having 
established the Royal Niger Company to exploit resources in the Niger River 
Delta, and expanded inland from there, the British found themselves by the 
late nineteenth century ruling territories and peoples—some 250 ethnic 
groups in all—that had never coexisted in a single state. They ran Nigeria 
as three separate administrative zones, divided along ethnic and religious 

The Muslim north, arid and poor but with half the country's population, 
would eventually gain supremacy over the army. Through a succession of 
military dictatorships, it would dominate (and plunder) the fertile and 
oil-rich but disunited south, whose largest ethnic groups—the Yoruba in the 
west and the Igbo in the east—together represent just 39 percent of the 
population. Democracy, too, has favored the north, which, united by Islam 
and voting as a bloc, has determined the outcome of virtually all elections. 
In Nigeria, where one generally votes for one's religious or ethnic 
brethren, democracy has deepened divisions rather than healed them.

Whoever holds the presidency faces an insoluble dilemma: either let the 
country break up, or use violence to hold it together.

Chief among the country's current woes is corruption. During the last 
twenty-five years, Nigeria earned more than $300 billion in oil revenues—but 
annual per capita income plummeted from $1,000 to $390. More than two-thirds 
of the population lives beneath the poverty line, subsisting on less than a 
dollar a day. The country's elites bear most of the blame. Since Nigeria 
gained independence, in 1960, its rulers—military and civilian alike—have 
systematically squandered or stolen some $400 billion in government money.

According to a 2004 World Bank report, 80 percent of the country's oil 
wealth accrues to 1 percent of the population. As the journalist Karl Maier, 
whose This House Has Fallen stands as the authoritative work on modern 
Nigeria, has put it, Nigeria is a "criminally mismanaged corporation where 
the bosses are armed and have barricaded themselves inside the company 
safe." Nigeria's similarities to Saudi Arabia are manifold: corruption, oil 
wealth, a burgeoning Muslim population, and value to the United States as an 
energy supplier. Osama bin Laden has called Nigeria "ripe for liberation."

The "ripening" began soon after what seemed the dawn of a new era: the 
sudden death, in 1998, of the military dictator Sani Abacha and the 
subsequent election to the presidency of the retired general Olusegun 
Obasanjo. Now sixty-nine and in his second term, Obasanjo had been 
imprisoned by Abacha in 1995 for allegedly plotting a coup; he emerged from 
prison in 1998 a national hero.

In a country where ethnicity trumps citizenship, religion trumps ethnicity, 
and power trumps religion, Obasanjo seemed the ideal compromise candidate. 
As a Yoruba, he would placate the most prominent and progressive ethnic 
group in the southwest. As a Christian, he would appeal to 40 percent of 
Nigerians (also largely in the south).

As a professional soldier, he had clout in the north as well, and would be 
able to restrain the military and forestall any uprisings by out-of-power 
generals. And as a democrat of international repute (he is a former 
candidate for United Nations secretary-general and a friend of Nelson 
Mandela and Jimmy Carter), he would convert Nigeria from the pariah state 
left behind by Abacha into an internationally respected regional power.

Sixty-two percent of Nigerians voted for Obasanjo in 1999, giving him a 
hefty mandate and showing that he had indeed won support outside his own 
ethnic and religious groups. He immediately set about undoing, or appearing 
to undo, the legacy of nearly three decades of mostly military rule. 
Announcing that he was "fully committed to using all appropriate means and 
resources to ensure that every man, woman, and child will perceive and reap 
the benefits of democracy," he established a commission to investigate 
allegations of corruption. However, nothing substantive has resulted—except 
that the commission has accused Obasanjo himself of taking bribes.

Obasanjo thickened the bureaucracy by setting up offices to track government 
expenditures, again with few results. He established a panel to review past 
human-rights violations, but the principal presumed offenders, three of 
Nigeria's former military rulers, have refused to testify—evidence that the 
army remains above the law. He pledged to diversify the economy along 
International Monetary Fund guidelines, which entailed cutting state 
subsidies to the fuel sector.

This proved a singularly unpopular move, because it eliminated the only 
dividend ordinary Nigerians have ever received from their country's oil 
wealth: cheap gas at the pump. General strikes ensued, turning violent at 
times, and the economic reforms stalled. Obasanjo's few genuine 
achievements—among them allowing more freedom of the press and winning 
forgiveness for 60 percent of the country's $30 billion foreign debt—have 
failed to alleviate his people's misery.

Obasanjo has shown scant appetite for tackling the crime, neglect, and 
inefficiency rampant in the oil sector. "Bunkering"—tapping into pipelines 
and siphoning oil into makeshift tankers hidden in the swamps of the Niger 
River Delta—is widespread; it is responsible for the loss of some 200,000 
barrels a day and for catastrophic fires that have incinerated locals 
attempting to scoop up the runoff. Criminal gangs with government 
connections are said to be behind the practice—who else could hire the 
needed equipment?

During his first term, Obasanjo established a development commission to 
distribute oil revenues among the country's indigenous peoples, but its 
efforts have come to naught; most of the windfall oil profits of the last 
few years have gone toward refurbishing mansions for the elite. Oil spills 
and gas flares blight the delta, ruining farmland and poisoning fishing 
grounds. Owing to the abysmal state of its few refineries, Nigeria remains 
an importer of gasoline. Officials divert gas from the pumps and sell it on 
the black market. Fuel shortages are endemic.

Obasanjo still talks of improving the lot of his people, but his rhetoric 
hardly sounds over the din of mayhem and rage. Nigeria appears to be 
de-developing, its hastily erected facade of modernity disintegrating and 
leaving city dwellers in particular struggling to survive in 
near-apocalyptic desolation. A drive across Lagos—the country's commercial 
capital and, with 13 million people, Africa's largest metropolis—reveals 
unmitigated chaos. The government has left roads to decay indefinitely. 
Thugs clear away the broken asphalt and then extract payments from drivers, 
using chunks of rubble to enforce their demands.

Residents dig up the pavement to lay cables that tap illegally into state 
power lines. Armed robbers emerge from the slums to pillage cars stuck in 
gridlocks (aptly named "hold-ups" in regional slang) so impenetrable that 
the fourteen-mile trip from the airport to the city center can take four 
hours. Electricity blackouts of six to twelve hours a day are common. "Area 
boys" in loosely affiliated gangs dominate most of the city, extorting money 
from drivers and shop owners. Those who fail to pay up may be beaten or 
given a knife jab in the shoulder.

The U.N. Human Development Index ranks Nigeria as having one of the worst 
standards of living, below both Haiti and Bangladesh. For all its oil 
wealth, and after seven years of governance by one of Africa's most highly 
touted democrats, Nigeria has become the largest failed state on earth.

Obasanjo claims to have been born again in prison, and he is prone to 
wearing his religion on his sleeve—a matter of controversy in a country that 
is half Muslim and nearly half Christian. He has exhorted Nigerians to 
"return to God," and many have done so, though not as he intended.

Following the death of Abacha, a Muslim, the northern twelve of Nigeria's 
thirty-six states, acting against the constitution, imposed sharia. Many 
Christians in those states rioted. When asked about the role of sharia in 
the country's sectarian violence, Obasanjo, apparently unwilling to risk 
confrontation with the Muslims and, by extension, the military), said only, 
"Sharia is for the Muslims as the Ten Commandments [are] for a Christian."

The religious tensions commingle with ethnic ones. Obasanjo has lifted many 
dictatorial strictures on daily life, but in the absence of effective 
security forces, this has only heightened clashes among the populace. During 
his rule, the most lethal period of unrest in the country's history, more 
than 10,000 people have died. One of the worst zones of conflict is the 
Niger River Delta in the south, the site of most of Nigeria's mainland 
petroleum reserves.

In recent years, numerous attacks by militias under the rebel leader Alhaji 
Dokubo-Asari have forced multinationals (against whom Dokubo-Asari has 
promised "all-out war") to cease pumping, causing oil prices on the world 
market to spike. Threats also emanate from the north, one of the most 
radicalized areas of Muslim black Africa.

The security forces that Nigerians expected Obasanjo to bring to heel still 
act as a caste unto themselves, extorting and killing with impunity. Armed 
robbers outgun the police, who receive their salaries months late. Many 
officers have turned to releasing accused criminals from jail in return for 
bribes. Citizens seeking revenge have murdered police officers and soldiers, 
whose comrades have undertaken murderous reprisals. Obasanjo has adopted a 
malignant policy of laissez-faire, saying, "The military should not be 
pampered, but the military should not be bashed." Across much of the 
country, anarchy reigns.

Rumors are circulating that Obasanjo may seek a third term in next year's 
elections, although he is constitutionally prohibited from doing so. Whether 
or not he stays on, his country's troubles may eventually entangle the 
United States. One particularly ominous scenario looms: rebels may succeed 
in halting oil extraction in the delta, drying up the revenues on which the 
northern elites depend. If, in response, a northern Muslim general were to 
oust the president and seize power, the United States would find itself 
facing an Islamic population almost five times Saudi Arabia's, radicalized 
and in control of the abundant oil reserves that America has vowed to 
protect. Should that day come, it could herald a military intervention far 
more massive than the Iraqi campaign.


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