Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Weekly Commentary – Nigeria: a U.S. Ally at a Glance

On December 26, 2006, hundreds of Nigerians were "burned alive" in the explosion of an oil pipeline that had been punctured by thieves in the country's largest city, Lagos. As the original caption to the photo at right read, "A rescue worker walks among charred corpses after a pipeline explosion in Lagos, Nigeria." Such events are symptomatic of the entrenched corruption and inequality of the nation.

Nigeria is both the major power in West Africa - the "regional police officer" (International Crisis Group) - and a country which supplies the U.S. with more oil than any other African nation. Accordingly, it is a key U.S. ally.

Hardly mincing words, the State Department’s Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for African Affairs commented in October that:
Nigeria is arguably our most important strategic partner in Africa. It is Africa’s most populous state as well as its second-largest economy. Nigeria is our largest African trading partner, and a growing key oil supplier to the United States. It is a crucial continental power broker in dealing with African institutions and in resolving armed conflict. It is a vital player in the War on Terror. Located along the Sahel, Nigeria exerts great influence on African political, economic, and socio-cultural trends. A prosperous Nigeria is vital to Africa’s growth and stability, and to projecting U.S. influence as a strategic partner.
Since 1999, the U.S. military relationship with Nigeria has blossomed, despite, or perhaps more accurately because of, the Nigerian military and security forces' harsh treatment of dissenters, including the use of extrajudicial executions (as reported by the State Department itself).

This relationship has manifested itself in several ways:
  • U.S. special forces "work with" the Nigerian military to control the Sahara, as part of the "War on Terror"
  • The U.S. and Nigeria coordinate on "security" in the Niger Delta; oil companies operating in the Delta have openly asked the U.S. military for "protection of their facilities"
  • The U.S. Navy patrols the Gulf of Guinea to protect Nigerian oil fields
Accordingly, the four day national strike last week over rising fuel prices, which paralyzed major cities, was no doubt watched with some concern in Washington. Oil, after all, is to be properly directed to the West, not the pesky natives - a lesson not understood by the Nigeria Labour Congress, which called the strike to compel the government to reverse measures pushed through by the former president Olusegun Obasanjo shortly before leaving office, including a dramatic increase in fuel prices and the selling off of government oil refineries to cronies.

This last action by Obasanjo may reduce the prospects for turning around the nation’s refining capabilities. Nigeria, one of the world’s largest oil producers and the largest in Africa, is in the absurd situation of being forced to import most of its fuel because its refineries are in shambles - a result of years of neglect.

The resulting strike was reportedly supported by "many Nigerians." An indication as to why is provided by the words of a Nigerian man interviewed by the BBC. Referring to the impact of the fuel price hike, the Lagos entrepreneur noted:
Our family income is reduced by 20%. But everything else has gone up in response to the price hikes - tomatoes, bread, all foodstuffs, clothes, transport... a loaf of bread used to be 100 naira ($0.78) but now it is between 120 and 150 naira ($1.18). Even rent has gone up because landlords have seized this opportunity to also increase their rates.
The man summarized that the aim of the government was "to be the master over the servants" - a typical posture for U.S.-allied governments, in Africa and beyond.

Nigerians returned to work on Monday, the strike having ended with a concession from the government to hold fuel prices steady for the next year but without a reversal of the sale of the oil refineries.

The labor unrest comes in the wake of the "deeply flawed" April election that brought Obasanjo’s hand-picked successor to power. Following the election, protestors from the Ogoni indigenous ethnic group in the Niger Delta managed to cut the country’s oil production by 30 percent in an attempt, as one protest group put it, to "compel the government to address the injustice in the Niger Delta."

Though the EU determined the election was not credible and Nigerian observers called for a revote, the results stood, troubling the nation’s alliance with the U.S. not a bit, aside from Washington’s usual pious pronouncement that it was "deeply troubled" by flaws in the poll. The International Crisis Group concluded that the elections were "the most poorly organised and massively rigged in the country’s history," no small achievement. Some 200 people died in violence related to the elections; opposition groups were intimidated and their leaders arrested.

Meanwhile, the U.S.-declared "global democratic revolution" carries on unabated, though it is of little value to most Nigerians; despite the country's position as the largest oil producer in Africa, more than half of Nigerians live in poverty. Astonishingly for a country rich in resources, Nigeria has the second highest maternal mortality rate in the world.

Lagos, Africa's second largest city, is what Michael Watts, director of the Center for African Studies at UC-Berkeley, calls "everyone’s worst urban nightmare," possessed as it is of massive slums. Watts writes:
In Ajegunle, one of its vast swamp shanty towns, perhaps 1.5 million people inhabit eight square kilometers. In a recent New Yorker article, George Packer describe [sic] the city as a burning garbage heap, populated by armies of scavengers that are superfluous and ultimately disposable.
Income inequality is massive, with 85 percent of proceeds from oil flowing to 1 percent of the population. One estimate holds that $100 billion in oil revenue has simply disappeared since 1970, presumably into the foreign bank accounts of corrupt leaders and bureaucrats.

In the decades since oil production began, inequality has increased while per capita income decreased. No less an establishment authority than the IMF observes that oil - or, at least, a system of oil exploration and refining designed to benefit the West and Nigeria's elite - may have actually hindered the standard of living in Nigeria. Watts notes that, "Between 1970 and 2000 in Nigeria, the number of people subsisting on less than one dollar a day grew from 36 percent to more than 70 percent, from 19 million to a staggering 90 million."

Nowhere is the suffering and exploitation of Nigerians more extreme than in the Niger Delta. In the last decade, oil-related violence in the Delta has skyrocketed. Government "security" forces, in alliance with the U.S., provide security to the foreign multi-nationals exploiting the region’s oil while abusing the local populations.

Sandy Cioffi, producer of a documentary on the Niger Delta struggle, notes that nonviolent activism in the region had been taking place since the 1980s and was met with brutality, culminating in the execution of the activist Ken Saro-Wiwa by the Nigerian military in 1995.

As Cioffi goes on to note, in 2002 a group of women conducted a nonviolent protest by overtaking an oil platform. The women demanded basic social services and the cleaning up of the oil-polluted environment; they were able to extract memoranda of understanding, which, however, went largely unfulfilled. Following these repeated refusals to implement the rudiments of justice, many residents have come to believe that more militant and violent tactics are necessary.

As the Nigerian writer and Nobel Prize winner Wole Soyinka explains about one such tactic now employed in the Niger Delta:
You must have heard of hostage-taking, and I personally, I’m in a position to tell you that I have participated in the efforts to release those hostages, which came to a successful conclusion. So I am in touch with some of these people, these young people, highly motivated. They are not thugs. They are not riffraff, as they are sometimes portrayed. They are disciplined. And they are determined to correct decades of injustice, and that's all they’re really after. You may disagree with their methods, but believe me, nobody should underestimate the very deep motivation that impels these people.
Adding further to the suffering of the region, the people of the Abalamabie community in Rivers State, Nigeria are suffering from a spill of heavy crude oil managed by Shell Petroleum. The oil spill polluted forests, farmland and waterways, leading to the "total destruction of crops, fishes and other sea foods". A statement issued by the president of the community’s development committee stated that "the rate of devastation is becoming unbearable" and is "destroying the economic life of the community."

The spill occurred over three months ago – to date Shell has not responded to pleas from the community to clean the site and has provided only very "meager" relief to the people, who are "predominantly peasant farmers and fishermen." The U.S. government could of course apply the necessary pressure to elicit a response from Shell, though this is of a similar likelihood as Washington pressuring the Nigerian government to work to end the massive social inequality that exists in the country.

The people of Nigeria, and especially in the Delta, may be forgiven if they are wondering where exactly the U.S. manifests its vaunted concern for human rights and development, standing in sharp contrast to the crudely self-interested alliances fostered by China on the African continent.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

"Saving Darfur or Salvation Delusion?"

We have a new, co-authored article published by Foreign Policy in Focus. Citations and footnotes for the article are available here; we welcome comments.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

40 Years of Occupation...and Counting

Steve Fake, co-author of this blog, traveled to Washington D.C. in a group of 22 activists from Boston to take part in the June 10 protest against 40 years of Israeli Occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights. What follows is his personal account of the protest.

In June 1967, amongst escalating tensions in the region, Israel launched attacks against Egypt and Jordan. Syria would also be drawn into the conflict. In the resulting "Six-Day War," Israel would capture, in direct contravention of international law, land that had been under the control of all three countries - the West Bank and East Jerusalem (Jordan), the Gaza Strip and Sinai Peninsula (Egypt), and the Golan Heights (Syria). While Egypt has since reclaimed the Sinai Peninsula, and the issue of the Golan Heights has fallen to the back burner, the areas comprising the parts of historic Palestine which do not form part of the state of Israel - the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza Strip - all remain under Israeli occupation. The Palestinians find themselves on ever shrinking parcels of land, subjected to torture, unlawful detention, and killings, and suffering in ways that conjure images of apartheid South Africa.

As this occupation completed its fourth decade, organizers convened a march in Washington D.C. to highlight the criminality and inhumanity of both Israel's treatment of the Palestinians and especially the U.S.' defining role in allowing the Israeli state to perpetrate its crimes. It was an historic day - the first instance, as a protest emcee noted repeatedly, of a national demonstration in the U.S. specifically dedicated to supporting the Palestinian cause.

Opposition to the occupation - normally absent from public discourse - recently received an unusual amount of exposure in our nation's capital. Reportedly, last month one of the leading organizations behind the demonstration placed ads in the D.C. metro "depicting a Palestinian child on his way to school with an Israeli tank looming in the background, gun barrel lowered. 'Imagine if this was your child's daily path to school,' the captions declare."

To make the comparison more tangible and realistic, perhaps in the future actors dressed up as Israeli soldiers can charge through Washington's streets with loaded weapons, actually firing at children.

As for the rally itself, I was greeted upon my arrival at the Capitol building by the airing of a statement that had been sent by none other than the former sitcom star Roseanne Barr; in her statement, Barr condemned "the vicious cycle of revenge and recriminations that benefit only those who profit from a distance." Inspired, the emcee commented (paraphrased): “today Roseanne, tomorrow the hottest couples in Hollywood. Support is growing. Next time we'll have Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie here.” At the very least we can launch a campaign to convince Angelina to adopt a Palestinian baby.

Other speakers at the rally included:
  • Mazin Qumsiyeh, the respected Palestinian geneticist, spoke of the Israel lobby in the U.S. While Qumsiyeh is right to broach this topic, it is important not to fall into a nationalist line of thinking by succumbing to the line that this lobby is "the dominant factor" in the formation of U.S. policies. Such a viewpoint not only serves as an abdication of moral responsibility ("hey, we're good people, and we would have a just policy towards the region if not for these meddlesome outsiders"), it also goes against the factual record. As Norman Finkelstein adeptly notes, "the historical connection between the US and Israel has been based on the useful services that Israel has performed for the United States in the region as a whole" - from taking out Nasser in Egypt, to recently attempting (and failing) to destroy Hezbollah. Indicative of this erroneous line of thinking, there were several signs at the rally expressing sentiments such as “End Israeli Occupation of Capital Hill.”
  • A speaker from the Green Party emphasized Washington's role in perpetuating the Occupation, calling the violence bipartisan and noting, impressively, that the right of return is advocated in the Party's platform.
  • Husam El-Nounou of the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme described Gaza as the world's largest prison, but noted that Palestinians are there to stay. As the Israeli journalist Gideon Levy comments, Israel "is a country in which the streets are plastered with posters calling for a population transfer."
  • Jennifer Loewenstein of Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions announced the organization's ambitious plan (the Constructing Peace Campaign) to rebuild every single Palestinian house destroyed this year by Israeli forces. She said about 300 homes are demolished each year on average.
  • Another speaker humorously suggested naming each of the Israeli checkpoints in the Occupied Territories for a U.S. Congressperson, since there are approximately the same numbers of each, to remind our representatives (and the public) of what they are funding.
Mazin Qumsiyeh estimated there were about 4,000 demonstrators and 50 counter-demonstrators. The Jerusalem Post put it at “upwards of 2,000” and the counter-protesters at “a couple hundred.” The organizers' website estimated over 5,000.

It was predictable that fewer people would show up than for a demonstration against the occupation of Iraq; however, while the organizers did not make public any expectations for crowd size, the turnout was nonetheless a bit disappointing in comparison to rallies held elsewhere.

The protest in London appears to have drawn many more people (estimates range widely, from 2,000 to 20,000); however, England has only a sixth of the U.S. population, and while Britain generally supports Israeli policies, it is not the decisive enabler of Israeli crimes that Washington is - a role of which the U.S. is evidently quite proud.

There was very little coverage of the protest by the media; the New York Times and Washington Post had none that I could find. If only we were focusing our efforts on Darfur instead of Palestine, we would have been rewarded with top media billing.

I took a few dozen photos from the protest, though a photographer named Diane Greene Lent has a superior set. Three videos of the rally and march are also available.

In addition to London, other protests were held in Colorado, Jerusalem, Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Tel Aviv.

Just two days before the protest, the prominent scholar on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Norman Finkelstein, was denied tenure by DePaul University in Chicago. Finkelstein must now vacate his current post by the end of the upcoming academic year.

Despite praise from Raul Hilberg, widely considered "the dean of Holocaust scholars," Finkelstein fell victim to a vicious smear campaign, spearheaded by the Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz. Mehrene Larudee, a fellow DePaul professor who was set to become head of the school's international studies program, was also denied tenure, for what she cites as her support for Finkelstein.

Students have protested the decision. According to one student, "This is going to be a long battle...DePaul will be embarrassed by this activity.'' One can only hope that this turns out to be the case.

In the words of Hllberg, "I have a sinking feeling about the damage this will do to academic freedom." Little has changed in these 40 years.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Weekly Commentary - Haranguing Hugo Chávez

From liberal to conservative, the corridors of educated opinion in the U.S. are quaking - quaking - with indignation over the Venezuelan government's non-renewal of a television license for the broadcaster RCTV. If I had a dollar for every one of these righteous condemnations of Caracas, I could buy a printing press and actually exercise in a meaningful way the First Amendment rights that many of these commentators and politicians have re-discovered at this most opportune of times.

Somewhat less cynical critiques from groups such as Human Rights Watch are justified in viewing Hugo Chávez's move as a case of his government's "misusing the state’s regulatory authority." Yet deeper issues linger.

As documented elsewhere, RCTV and other right-wing media in Venezuela backed the short-lived 2002 coup against the democratically-elected Chávez government, which was soon after overturned by popular mobilization. During these fleeting moments of jubilation for Washington, the new RCTV-backed government flaunted its democratic credentials by having "dissolved all constitutional institutions" in Venezuela, including "the National Assembly, the Supreme Court, the attorney general's office and the national electoral commission."

One may be tempted to consider the conundrum, how would the U.S. and other shedders of crocodile tears react if a domestic news station backed a coup against the Bush government, and then cheered as its imposed successors "dissolved all constitutional institutions" within the country?

There would no question of letting the offending broadcaster continue to operate for five years, at which point the U.S. would not renew its license - for the simple reason that the station's "owners and managers would have been lined up before firing squads right away." As Patrick McElwee comments in an insightful piece, "it is frankly amazing that this company has been allowed to broadcast for 5 years after the coup, and that the Chávez government waited until its license expired to end its use of the public airwaves."

The crux of the issue, as McElwee astutely observes, is that:
The government seems to have made the decision without any administrative or judicial hearings. Unfortunately, this is what the law, first enacted in 1987, long before Chávez entered the political scene, allows. It charges the executive branch with decisions about license renewal, but does not seem to require any administrative hearing. The law should be changed, but at the current moment when broadcast licenses are up for renewal, it is the prevailing law and thus lays out the framework in which decisions are made.
The government can legitimately take measures to ensure that the airwaves - which belong to the public, after all - represent a diversity of opinion, and are not, as is the case in Venezuela, generally unresponsive to the wishes of the population, and in the stranglehold of the political right. Yet it is, to be sure, a "flawed process" (though not one originally devised by Chávez') that allows the non-renewal of RCTV's license, and, as Noam Chomsky notes, "For those who uphold far higher standards than those of the West, it's entirely legitimate to criticize the closing of RCTV."

Principled defenders of free speech - evidently a small category - will also take note of recent moves in Pakistan, a U.S. partner in the "War on Terror."

Tellingly, few bones were picked with the (now-suspended) restrictions on the media imposed by the Washington-allied leader of Pakistan, General Pervez Musharraf. Himself of sterling democratic credentials - he, unlike Chávez, has never been approved by voters in anything approaching meaningful elections - Musharraf's government had gained "new powers to suspend broadcasters' licenses, seal their premises and confiscate equipment." In fact, the Pakistani government "has also blocked transmission of three private television stations."

One searches in vain for widespread condemnation by Washington and Western media of this dictator's self-given right to "make it easier for government forces to shut down broadcasters."

There is, after all, a "War on Terror" to win, pitting civilization's unquenchable thirst for freedom against evil incarnate itself.

Given Washington's own apparently deliberate (and repeated) bombing of the pan-Arab network Al-Jazeera's offices, U.S. leaders could achieve a painless and substantial victory in this "War" by turning themselves over for imprisonment by the FBI. By comparison, Chávez's overhyped transgressions against the media pale into insignificance.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Stop the Deportation of Sameh Khouzam!

We are foregoing our usual Weekly Commentary to ask you to take action on behalf of a personal friend.

Sameh Khouzam, an Egyptian national residing in the U.S., has been detained by U.S. immigration officials and is facing immediate (Thursday, June 7) deportation to Egypt. Sameh, a Coptic Christian, originally escaped from Egypt to flee religious persecution by government authorities. He has faced attacks by Egyptian officials, and has endured nearly a decade of prison time in the U.S.

A U.S. court had previously found that Sameh could not be deported to Egypt since it was "more likely than not" that he would be tortured there. Nevertheless, the U.S. has since accepted the Egyptian government's ludicrous assurances that it will not torture Sameh. To those who have followed the U.S. government's "extraordinary rendition" practices over the years, it is apparent that these assurances against torture are delivered with a wink. In many cases, Washington has deported victims because they know the detainee will be tortured and desire as much. There is widespread documentation by human rights groups that Egypt heavily engages in torture.

For more information about this case, please refer to, a letter from U.S. House Representative Joseph Pitts (R-PA), to Secretary of State CondoleezzaRice on behalf of Sameh, and articles from UPI, the ACLU, Human Rights Watch, and Human Rights USA.

The contact information for relevant officials is included below, as well as suggested talking points and a sample letter (courtesy of that may be faxed. Given the immediacy of the situation at hand, officials must be called, faxed, and emailed; there is no time for letter-writing.

Thank you for your prompt attention to this serious matter. Please help us publicize this urgent case. You can send an email with a link to this post to your friends and acquaintances using the envelope symbol at the bottom.

Phone Call Talking Points:
-calling to ask that Sameh Khouzam not be deported on Thursday, June 7, as scheduled
-Sameh is an Egyptian who faces a serious threat of torture if he is deported there
-Sameh has committed no crime
-use your influence with the Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement to stop Sameh’s deportation and obtain his immediate release from DHS/ICE custody

Sample Letter to Officials

The Honorable Condoleezza Rice
Secretary of State
U.S. Department of State
2201 C Street, NW
Washington, D.C. 20520
Phone: 202-647-4000
Email form

Senator Arlen Specter
U.S. Senate - Pennsylvania
Via Fax No. (202) 224-8165
Phone: 202-224-4254
Email form

The Honorable Michael Chertoff
Office of the Secretary
U.S. Department of Homeland Security
Phone: 202-282-8495

The Honorable Alberto Gonzales
Office of the Attorney General
U.S. Department of Justice
Phone: 202-353-1555

Contact Information for your Local Official