The Magazine

Ignoring Nigeria

The election that wasn't and other disturbing -portents.

May 14, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 33 • By DAVID ADESNIK
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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.