Only four countries export more oil to the United States than Nigeria. Each day, Nigeria produces the same amount of oil, give or take a few barrels, as Kuwait or the United Arab Emirates. If oil prices hold steady at their current level, Nigeria will continue to earn more than $50 billion a year from oil exports.

Oil is Nigeria's curse. It generates enough wealth to provoke lasting and violent conflicts, but not enough to raise the nation out of poverty and misrule. And now, once again, Nigeria is on the brink of political chaos.

Almost nine years ago, a sudden heart attack liberated Nigeria from the brutal dictatorship of Gen. Sani Abacha. Two Saturdays ago, pervasive fraud and brazen violence ruined an election that had had the potential to make history. If all had gone well on April 21, Nigerian voters might have witnessed the first transfer of power from one elected civilian president to another. Instead, no one knows who the next president will be.

Although Nigerian democracy has always been a rather corrupt and violent affair, it may now be replaced by something far worse. And this failure has everything to do with oil.

The Election

The name of the winner is Umaru Musa Yar'Adua. Nigerians themselves know little about Yar'Adua, an obscure provincial governor from northern Nigeria, home to most of the country's 70 million Muslims. Last December, President Olusegun Obasanjo used both bribery and intimidation to ensure Yar'Adua's nomination as the candidate of the ruling People's Democratic party. Obasanjo resorted to this approach only after a previous round of bribery and intimidation failed to result in a constitutional amendment that would have allowed Obasanjo to run for a third term of office.

Yar'Adua prevailed with 24.6 million votes, about 70 percent of the total. The former dictator Gen. Muhammadu Buhari came in second with 6.6 million votes, about 18 percent of the total. Outgoing vice president Atiku Abubakar placed third, with 2.6 million votes. Both Buhari and Abubakar quickly declared the result invalid.

Even before the results were announced, observers dismissed the election as a failure. A delegation of 150 from the European Union said the election had "fallen far short of basic international and regional standards." Two American delegations, including one headed up by Madeleine Albright, arrived at the same conclusion.

Yar'Adua's inauguration is scheduled for May 29, giving the opposition only a short time to block his ascension to the presidency. Gen. Buhari's party announced that it would challenge the results in court, although Buhari himself rejected that approach, saying that the courts had already demonstrated their impotence. Instead, Buhari wants to re-run the election and declared that it is "up to the Nigerian people to accept slavery or stand up for their rights." On May 1, Buhari led a mass protest to demand a new poll.

For his part, Yar'Adua has extended an olive branch to his rivals and said that he wants to resolve the crisis by forming a government of national unity. Of course, that would allow Yar'Adua to remain president in spite of his artificial mandate.

The wild card in this situation is the sitting president, Obasanjo. Critics have speculated for months that Obasanjo would provoke a crisis in order to justify an extension of his presidency. Despite ample warning that the April elections would degenerate into a farce, Obasanjo aided and abetted that process. Now, if there is no resolution to the crisis before May 29, Obasanjo may get exactly what he wants.

The Oil Curse

Nigeria's politicians bear direct responsibility for the persistent dysfunction of their country's political system. Yet the behavior of Nigerian politicians is impossible to understand without a close examination of the perverse incentives created by great reservoirs of oil.

For countries with very few inhabitants and a lot of oil, it is a blessing, not a curse. In the microstates of the Persian Gulf, oil generates so much wealth that the ruling families can purchase the loyalty of their subjects by providing them with a Western standard of living. Even then, there is more than enough money left over for local princes to indulge their taste for sports cars, racehorses, palaces, and private jets.

Middle-sized kingdoms like Saudi Arabia have found it hard to maintain this arrangement after decades of rapid population growth. In Nigeria, such an arrangement was impossible from the beginning. Today, Nigeria has a population of 140 million, or one-sixth of the entire population of sub-Saharan Africa. If each citizen received an equal share of the nation's annual income from oil, the payoff would amount to a little more than $300.

Nonetheless, Nigeria's oil wealth is more than sufficient to subvert its economy and government. Other sectors of the economy have withered as a result of the magnetic attraction of oil. The average Nigerian is much poorer now than he was when the country achieved its independence from Britain in 1960.

Oil also promotes awesome amounts of corruption. The government's collection of oil revenue requires almost no effort, since a small number of multinational corporations, such as Shell and Chevron, locate and extract the oil but turn over more than half of their profits to the government. On average, oil provides 90 to 95 percent of all government revenue. Taxation on every other kind of economic activity is negligible.

Almost no taxes may sound great, but without taxation there is no representation. Since Nigerian politicians don't depend on voters paying taxes, they don't care much about voters' opinions. Instead, politicians focus on maximizing their personal share of the government's oil revenue. When elections roll around, politicians use their share of that revenue to buy, beg, or steal enough votes to stay in office.

Of course, the incumbent doesn't always prevail. Sometimes, the challenger does a better of job of bribing officials, stuffing ballot boxes, and organizing a private army of thugs to intimidate his or her rivals. This pattern applies at every level of government, so that state and local elections tend to be just as fraudulent as federal elections.

The Insurgency

The Niger Delta is the home of both the Nigerian oil industry and several million members of an ethnic minority called the Ijaw. Located on the country's southern coast, where the Niger River flows into the Atlantic Ocean, the Delta is a maze of mangrove swamps dotted by many villages but few roads or cities.

The Delta is home to crime syndicates that specialize in the "bunkering," i.e., theft, of oil. Bunkering is a sophisticated operation that involves extensive networks of workers, trucks, and tanker boats. It thrives in broad daylight because the syndicates pay off those politicians, policemen, and military officers who might otherwise try to stop them. Current estimates indicate that 40,000 barrels of oil are bunkered every 24 hours, providing an annual income of $1.5 billion to the syndicates.

The Delta is also home to a very angry population that must endure oil spills and acid rain without deriving much benefit from the oil industry that thrives on their land. The Delta residents also believe that they have been victimized because of their Ijaw ethnicity. Their resentment of the federal government has helped transform the bunkering syndicates into something that more closely resembles a guerrilla insurgency. Once poorly armed, the insurgents now fight with heavy machine guns and shoulder-fired rockets, matching the firepower of the soldiers they oppose. Thanks to their firepower and innovative tactics, the insurgents often prevail in such confrontations.

However, the crisis in the Delta is less military than it is political. The government is losing on the battlefield because it is so thoroughly corrupt. Provincial governors in the Delta often cooperate more with the insurgents than with the federal government. Officers up to the rank of admiral have been discharged for their role in vast bunkering enterprises. Meanwhile, the insurgents are showing greater discipline, expressed via the consolidation of several organizations into the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, or MEND.

Not surprisingly, the most violent and thoroughly rigged elections in Nigeria take place in the Niger Delta. Whereas legitimate state and local governments might work to address the grievances that fuel the insurgency, the criminals now in office mostly serve to validate the insurgents' credentials as the authentic voice of the people.

Global Implications

The insurgency in the Niger Delta is not just a local problem or even a national one. The violence in the Delta has shut down almost a fourth of the Nigerian oil industry. In 2004, the price of crude oil rose above $50 per barrel for the first time ever, after a Nigerian guerrilla commander threatened to wage "all-out war" against the government.

Even if the insurgents shut down a third or a half of the Nigerian oil industry, it might not provoke a global crisis. Yet if there were another crisis at the same time in Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, or Venezuela, the price of oil might double yet again. Instead of three dollars for a gallon of gas, we might be paying six.

Nigeria is a country we can't afford to ignore, yet we are trying our best. In the ten days after the April 21 election, there wasn't a single front-page story about Nigeria in the Washington Post. The New York Times managed just one, along with stories about video games, pet food, and a 370 lb. football player.

Yet if Nigeria can't resolve its presidential crisis before Gov. Yar'Adua's scheduled inauguration on May 29, it may be in the headlines very soon.

David Adesnik is a policy analyst in Washington, D.C.

Next Page