[Marxism] Nigeria: Worse Than Iraq?
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Sat Mar 11 07:17:12 MST 2006
Nigeria: Worse than Iraq?
Worse Than Iraq?
Nigeria's president and onetime hope for a stable future is leading his
country toward implosionand 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 highfor both
Nigeria and the United States. An OPEC member since 1971, Nigeria has 35.9
billion barrels of proven petroleum reservesthe 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 peoplessome 250 ethnic
groups in allthat 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 groupsthe Yoruba in the
west and the Igbo in the easttogether 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 revenuesbut
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 rulersmilitary and civilian alikehave
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 resultedexcept
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 testifyevidence 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
achievementsamong them allowing more freedom of the press and winning
forgiveness for 60 percent of the country's $30 billion foreign debthave
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 Deltais 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 practicewho else could hire the
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 Lagosthe country's commercial
capital and, with 13 million people, Africa's largest metropolisreveals
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 sleevea 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
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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