REVIEW: Article

Nigeria’s Future Prospects

Nigeria has been much on the mind of American policymakers of late. The reasons are many. It is our fourth largest source of imported oil. It has the largest Muslim population in sub-Saharan Africa. Its ability to remain a secure source of petroleum is viewed more apprehensively than at any time in the past. Its restive Northern Muslims are viewed as increasingly susceptible to Islamist indoctrination. Its institutions are perceived as rife with corruption. There is considerable apprehension over the 2007 Presidential elections and whether the constitution will be changed to permit President Olusegun Obasanjo to run for a third term. Nigeria’s role as West Africa’s most dominant and influential power is under scrutiny in the wake of the recent Charles Taylor affair.

In order to determine how valid these concerns are, it is important to understand some of the complexities of Africa’s most populous country.

The Nigerian Paradox

Nigeria is the richest country in Africa in natural and human resources. It is the world’s tenth largest producer of crude oil. Yet, it is ranked by the United Nations among the world’s poorest nations. It has by far the largest number of black professionals and university graduates on the continent. Abroad, its educated émigrés excel, from the Persian Gulf to the United States (US). In both the US and the United Kingdom few, if any, immigrant groups are higher achievers than Nigerians.

Nigeria is a cauldron of religiosity. Evangelical Christianity is spreading faster there than almost anywhere else on earth. Its President is a born again Christian. One third of its 36 states have adopted Islam’s harshest penal code, the Sharia. Yet Nigeria retains its ranking by Transparency International as one of the world’s most corrupt countries.

With the single exception of Egypt, no state in the Arab world has even half as many Muslims as Nigeria. Adherents of Islam are estimated to make up 50 percent of Nigeria’s population. (It may be possible to extrapolate a more accurate percentage from the results of the first census in 15 years which is being carried out as this is written).

George Bush is the first Republican President to visit Nigeria, and President Obasanjo has visited the United States several times. Obasanjo has been a supporter of the War on Terrorism, denounced the Taliban and al-Qaeda and supported anti-terrorism efforts in the region. He has not, however, enlisted Nigeria in the “coalition of the willing,” reflecting a widely held African belief that Iraq is outside the parameters of the anti-terrorism battlefield.

Nigeria has rarely experienced the anti-American flare ups so common in the Middle East. However, ironically, the most tragic fallout over the Danish cartoons portraying the Prophet Mohammed occurred in Nigeria where more people died in protest demonstrations and their aftermath than in any other country. 

Oil: How Reliable a Source?

For a brief period in the 1970s, Nigeria became the United States’ number one source of imported oil and for most of that turbulent decade it rarely fell lower than number two. An Arab boycott led to the quadrupling of oil prices at the pump, long lines at gas stations and the call by President Nixon for conservation measures. Throughout this period and during the Iranian crisis at the end of the decade, Nigeria, though a member of OPEC, steadily increased its oil imports to the US. 

Nigeria has long been a reliable supplier. She has raised her output from two million barrels a day to 2.5 million, two thirds of which goes to the United States. This led to hopes that Nigeria and the other smaller African producers of Angola, Chad, Equatorial Guinea, Sao Tomé and Principe, Gabon and Cameroon would become larger exporters, thus helping the US to wean itself away from Middle Eastern sources. Nigerian oil is important to the United States not only for its quantity but also its quality. It is a light sweet crude, with low sulphur content, unmatched for its ease of refinement and the cleaner, more environmental friendly end product which it produces. It is cheaper to ship to our ports than oil from the Persian Gulf. In addition to its petroleum, Nigeria is expected to become a major source of natural gas in the next decade.

For Nigeria to assume the role that energy strategists plan for it, it is crucial that its federal government tackle the growing unrest in the Niger Delta, the region from which most of the oil flows. The grievances are long standing. The area’s inhabitants feel neglected by the national government and cheated out of their share of the revenues from the wealth their region produces. Under a formula known as derivation, the oil producing states now receive 13 percent of the revenues generated. They are lobbying the convention, which is rewriting the old constitution drafted by the military, for an increase to 50 percent.    Thus far their demands have resulted in a decision to raise their take to only 18 percent.

Residents of the Niger Delta region also feel themselves victims of environmental degradation by the oil companies whom they see as exploiting them. The two major American companies, ExxonMobil and Chevron, have most of their operations off shore which has spared them some, but not all, of the troubles which beset the country’s largest producer, Shell, which is constantly the target of protest actions by militants from the villages and towns in which it operates.

After the most recent spate of kidnappings of foreign oil workers, including some Americans, and their subsequent release, militant protesters united under the banner of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), have announced that they will in the future forgo kidnappings and instead direct their energies to attacking oil installations.

The often heavy handed actions of the military to end the sabotaging of pipe lines by protesters and the stealing of oil by criminal gangs has led MEND to demand the withdrawal of  all troops from the region. In addition they have called for the release of the most prominent Ijaw militant, Mujuhid Dokubo-Asari, and the popular Ijaw politician, the former Governor of Bayelsa State, Diepreye Alamieyeseigha. The former is facing trial for treason, the latter for corruption. Supporters of the impeached governor accuse the Obasanjo government of selective prosecution of a political adversary who opposes the President’s third term bid.

The seriousness of the unrest in the Niger Delta can be measured by the fact that the militants have so harassed the oil companies that Nigerian oil production has been reduced by 25 percent (or about 630,000 barrels per day). Shell’s operations have been the most severely affected. It also faces demands that it comply with an order from the national parliament and a federal court that it compensate the Ijaw community $1.5 billion for environmental degradation.

The consequences of all this to the United States could be substantial. Another competitor for Nigeria’s oil, China, has recently appeared on the scene.  Her energy needs are great, and she is buying up blocks of oil fields and making investments, considered economically unsound by Western companies, in order to assure a greater market share.  The short-term fear is that more oil for China at a time of diminished production will mean less for the United States. In the long run, it could do damage to hopes to replace the Persian Gulf with the Gulf of Guinea as a major source of American oil imports.  Foreign investments in petroleum production are expected to rise substantially from their current level of $50 billion. By 2015, West Africa would be the source of 25 percent of American oil imports and a major exporter of natural gas.

Northern Disaffection

The Obasanjo government is facing ethnic unrest on a second front—the predominantly Muslim, Hausa/Fulani, North.  In the 1999 elections, which returned the country to civilian rule, the comfort level of the northern political and military elite with Obasanjo, himself a former military leader, was thought to be high in spite of the fact that he was a Yoruba from the South West region and a born again Christian. He was elected carrying all but three of the northern states while losing all of the Yoruba ones. To prevent future military coups, Obasanjo rid the army of most of the generals and field grade officers who had held political appointments under the military regimes of his predecessors. This act, more than any other, ended his honeymoon with the northern power elite.

During all the years of northern control of the central government, no state had inaugurated the harsh Islamic penal code, the Sharia. But soon after Obasanjo’s purge of the army, 12 northern states, one after the other, adopted it. That its enactment was strongly criticized by Muslim governors of two Yoruba states illustrates a phenomenon often misinterpreted. The fault lines of group antagonism in Nigeria usually run under ethnic and regional differences rather than religious ones. Historically, opposition to Northern military rule has been most pronounced among the Yorubas, half of whom are Muslims. Some of the most vehement opponents of the last military junta, that of Sani Abacha, were his co-religionists from the South.  

Opposition to the American invasion of Iraq is higher in the North than elsewhere in the country. But disapproval of the Bush Administration’s execution of the “War on Terrorism” has not resulted in any appreciable support for al-Qaeda or other Islamists.  Most Northern Muslims, while doctrinally very conservative, do not interpret the Koran as commanding that they live in an Islamist state. Since the independence of Nigeria in 1960, they have been among the keenest participants in the political process. In the view of many of them, the adoption of Sharia is completely consistent with democracy since it is the criminal code under which the majority wants to be adjudicated.

Perceived desecration of the Koran or blasphemy of the Prophet is sure to bring mobs out into the northern streets in search of non-believing southerners against whom to seek retribution. Usually it is a home grown affront that exercises them. Issues involving the Middle East rarely stir such passions. One recent exception was the Danish cartoons. The victims were mostly Ibos living in the North. When their bodies were shipped back home to the Ibo heartland in the South East,  anguished memories of the slaughters of their kith and kin, which helped ignite the civil war 30 years earlier, led to Ibo vengeance being visited upon their Hausa neighbors. 

Since September 11, both bin Laden and the Pentagon seem to have over estimated how fertile a ground for the proliferation of Islamic terrorists the Muslim North is.  Following riots over the Miss World Contest which were held in Nigeria during the Holy Month of Ramadan in 2002, Osama exhorted Muslims in Nigeria to rebel against the “apostate” Obasanjo government. However, despite the fact that no Northerners mistook his best selling T-shirts and posters as standards to rally around, the US European Command (EUCOM) feared that they might. 

There has been no diplomatic presence resident in the Nigerian North since our Consulate there was closed during the Abacha regime in 1996. The American embassy has moved from the old capital, Lagos, in the Yoruba heartland to the new capital, Abuja, which technically is of, but not in, the North—a border enclave much like Washington, DC was before the end of segregation.

EUCOM has persuaded the Pentagon to pay more attention to terrorist threats in Africa. A host of initiatives on the continent are being undertaken which include, joint operations, training in counterterrorism, supply of military equipment and the seeking of basing rights. Little of this is taking place, yet, in Nigeria. Covering northern Nigeria only by itinerant visits from Abuja based Foreign Service officers will make the task of threat assessment there more difficult.

Nigeria as a Regional Power

Nigeria has shown more ability to project its military power than any other African state.  In the 1990s, it spent much treasure and blood in bringing order to Sierra Leone and Liberia. It has been one of the United Nations most faithful participants in peacekeeping missions from Africa to the Balkans. Obasanjo has been the most influential leader in the African Union. He has served as its President and persuaded it to refuse to recognize any government which comes to power through military coup. His personal diplomacy reversed or prevented coups in several West African states. He hosted peace talks between contending forces in the Sudan. He offered asylum to Charles Taylor, the disgraced President of Liberia in order to avert a blood bath there. That last act proved to be controversial both at home and abroad. Taylor became the first African head of state to be indicted for war crimes. After Obasanjo agreed to hand him over to the newly elected democratic government of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Taylor escaped as Obasanjo was enroute to Washington to meet with President Bush. Calls for Bush to cancel the visit became moot when at the last minute Taylor was captured trying to cross the border into Cameroon. 

The Charles Taylor incident came at a time when President Obasanjo finds himself  under increasing domestic and international criticism raised by those who believe that he is trying to amend the constitution so that he can run for a third term.  The harshest statement has come from the US Director of National Intelligence, John Negroponte, in his annual Threat Assessment, presented to the Senate in February 2006:

Speculation that President Obasanjo will try to change the constitution so he can seek a third term in office is raising political tensions and, if proven true, threatens to unleash major turmoil and conflict. Such chaos in Nigeria could lead to disruption of oil supply, secessionist moves by regional governments, major refugee flows, and instability elsewhere in West Africa.

While President Bush was prepared to take Obasanjo to task if Taylor had not been apprehended, it does not appear that he discussed the Administration’s concern over the third term issue.

Many friends and supporters of President Obasanjo are uneasy over the third term issue.  They fear that forcing a constitutional change will sully his record as a champion of democracy. He was the first military ruler to voluntarily hand over power to an elected civilian government. Out of power, he was so severe a critic of military rule that he was jailed and nearly killed by the Abacha regime. When he was elected president as a civilian, he began a transformation of the international community’s perception of Nigeria. He had been a leading figure in Transparency International, the world’s most respected watchdog on corruption. He had been an outspoken critic of military rule and human rights abuses in Nigeria. He introduced sweeping anti-corruption legislation, which required openness in government contracting, and set up a federal agency to investigate corrupt practices by government officials.

Nigeria is a difficult country to govern. It has over 250 different ethnic groups in a population estimated to be between 120 and 140 million people. It is roughly half Christian and half Muslim.  It looms so large in West Africa that the region’s economy and security is heavily dependent on Nigeria’s success in curbing corruption, reducing poverty and attenuating the alienation of so many of its groups who feel increasingly marginalized.

President Obasanjo heads the longest serving civilian government in the country’s history, but the next twelve months are critical. The run up to the 2007 presidential elections will be closely scrutinized not only by Nigerians but by the outside world for whom the continued vitality of “the giant of Africa” is of growing importance and concern.

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