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.


Steve Peacock said...

And now, the US has added Nigeria to its recipient target-list for its global governmental anticorruption initiative. Leading by example, of course.

Check out for more.

Arabica Robusta said...

Excellent analysis.

Note "A prosperous Nigeria is vital to Africa’s growth and stability, and to projecting U.S. influence as a strategic partner."

In nearly every statement of the 'U.S.' government, universalistic statements about democracy, freedom, prosperity and all that come first, followed by statements that cut closer to the truth (U.S. interests, influence, economic security for the U.S., etc).