Nigeria: The Next Quagmire?

By G. Pascal Zachary, AlterNet
Posted on March 14, 2006, Printed on March 14, 2006

Africa's humanitarian needs -- today the pillage in Darfur, yesterday
the famine in Niger -- dominate the headlines. Human suffering, from
hunger to rape, also dominates the limited attention that Americans
have for hearing about problems in the most troubled part of the
world. Now that may be changing as an armed insurgency in oil-rich
Nigeria threatens oil exports to the U.S. and raises the possibility
that U.S. troops will dig into African soil in order to protect a
resource deemed vital to American interests.

In short, Nigeria might be the next Iraq.

Putting American troops at risk in Africa would be a big change -- and
speaks volumes about the new relationship between America and the
sub-Saharan Africa. Ever since American troops were killed in Somalia
early in the presidency of Bill Clinton, a firm rule of U.S. policy
toward Africa has been to never put U.S. soldiers on African ground.
For more than 10 years, American troops have studiously avoided
intervening directly in African conflicts. This policy prevented the
United States from trying to halt the genocide in Rwanda in the
mid-1990s. More recently, this stance stopped the United States from
using troops to restore order to Liberia. The policy may also stop the
United States from sending troops to Nigeria.

But maybe not, because the purpose of an intervention in Nigeria would
be to protect American oil -- not save lives in a humanitarian spirit.
Oil drives American foreign policy as never before, and the Middle
East isn't the only troubled oil-producing region. Nigeria is already
one of the top-five largest exporters of oil to the United States, and
the country's oil-producing region, the Niger Delta, is beset with
insurgencies and criminality, some of which is directed by factions in
Nigeria's own government. Two Nigerian rear admirals were
court-martialed last year for their part in the attempted theft of
thousands of tons of Nigerian oil by an international crime syndicate
operating in Russia and eastern Europe.

Chevron and Shell, the two largest foreign oil companies operating in
the Niger Delta, are targets of citizen rage, not the least because
Nigeria's government has ignored social needs and political protest in
the region for many years. Tensions are high, and disorder threatens
to engulf the region. As the Council on Foreign Relations, a leading
foreign policy group, observes in a new report, "The suppression of
dissent in the [Niger] Delta, together with armed violence and the
existence of armed militias, makes for a potentially explosive

Kidnapping of American oil workers is common. So are protests by local
residents who say their needs are neglected even as Chevron and Shell
reap huge revenues from oil. Most local people lack electricity,
running water, decent schools for their children and job
opportunities. Tensions flare between families and between ethnic
groups forced to scramble for crumbs tossed by the oil companies,
which routinely try to undercut social unrest by making small
donations to local communities and hiring men for make-work jobs
"guarding" pipelines. Perhaps most galling to people living in the
Niger Delta are the frequent gasoline shortages caused by the Nigerian
government's failure to refine enough crude oil to meet its own
domestic needs.

The simmering outrage felt by Delta Nigerians has deep roots. A decade
ago, during a period of military dictatorship, protests against oil
exploitation triggered a brutal government crackdown. The leaders of
the protest were arrested and imprisoned. Some were executed,
including Ken Saro-Wiwa, one of Nigeria's finest writers and a
passionate advocate for social justice in the Niger Delta.

Raising the stakes

American dependence on Nigerian oil is anticipated to grow rapidly in
the years ahead as new fields come online. In 2007, Nigeria expects to
hold a presidential election. President Olusegun Obasanjo has not
ruled out that he will run for office again, even though he has
exhausted his two-term limit. U.S. officials have openly expressed
dismay over the possibility of another Obansanjo election victory,
saying he should abide by Nigeria's constitution and step down.

The tangling between the United States and Obasanjo, coupled with the
instability in Nigeria's oil region, has prompted private discussions
in Washington about the wisdom of sending U.S. troops to sort out the
situation. So far the Bush administration has said nothing publicly,
but a new report on the future of U.S.-Africa relations, by the
influential Council on Foreign Relations, calls for the U.S. to launch
a "pilot program for interdiction and to curb (oil) piracy." Such a
program might involve ships and personnel from the U.S. Navy or Coast

Nigerians themselves are pondering whether they should invite U.S.
intervention into the troubled Niger Delta. Late last month, Nigeria's
vice president, Atiku Abubakar, told the Financial Times of London
that the United States could provide more military assistance to his
government. The Nigerian government is believed to want at least 200
patrol boats to guard the Delta against oil pirates and insurgents.
The Financial Times has reported that the United States has provided
only four old boats. In response, Nigeria has turned to China for
military assistance. Last year, the Chinese, who have been scouring
the globe for secure oil supplies, signed a deal to receive 30,000
barrels of oil a day from Nigeria.

Insurgent attacks on oil operations have reduced output by 20 percent,
and the threat of further conflict has raised oil prices globally.
Nigeria is the world's eighth-largest oil exporter and a significant
factor on the world market. The Nigerian government insists it plans
to impose order on the restive region, but it has failed to do so in
the past. These repeated failures lend credence to the possibility of
U.S. military assistance, and even American troops on the ground. One
restraint on any U.S. intervention in Nigeria: concerns that American
troops on the ground, or even an expanded military alliance, might
merely assist corrupt factions in the Nigerian government.

There is also the danger that an American presence would provoke
hostility from ordinary Nigerian citizens -- even if American soldiers
were merely trying to rescue some of the American oil workers
routinely taken hostage by Nigerian insurgents.

"There's widespread fear among local people in the Niger Delta that
the U.S. government is preparing a military strike force to attack
insurgents and release kidnapped oil workers," notes Ike Okonta, a
research fellow at the Department of Politics and International
Relations at Oxford University.

"This could turn out to be a disastrous venture," adds Okonta, who is
the co-author of a book on oil conflict in Nigeria. "The Niger Delta
is a vast and intricate maze of creeks and swamps, and the hostages
could be secreted in any of these. Unless the U.S. military is able to
pinpoint with accuracy where the hostages are being held, and are also
able to mount a surprise rescue mission with speed and stealth, the
insurgents could move the hostages to another location and, in
retaliation, harm them."

Okonta warns that an American military intervention into Nigeria could
get bogged down, turning into an "African Vietnam," in which U.S.
troops are pitted against both a hostile local population and a highly
difficult terrain.

Rather than a military move, the U.S. government should seek to broker
a diplomatic bargain between the Nigerian government, oil companies
and aggrieved residents of the oil-producing region. Such bargains are
difficult to achieve, but the United States carries a big stick: the
potential to make war in Nigeria to protect American oil sources.

G. Pascal Zachary writes regularly about Africa. He has visited
Nigeria's oil-producing region for Amnesty International.
(c) 2006 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.
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