November 30, 2006 | World Defense Review

Islamism Comes to the Niger Delta

Last month, I discussed in this column the immense importance of the Nigerian elections scheduled for April 21, 2007, concluding:

“If President Obasanjo manages to hand over his place on Abuja's Aso Rock to whoever is elected, he will not only achieve a feat that no other Nigerian leader has ever managed – the peaceful transition from one democratically-elected head of state to another – he make a significant contribution to regional stability and international security, including the strategic interests of the United States, as an oil-rich nation with a Muslim population three times that of Saudi Arabia consolidates its budding democracy. If, on the other hand, the democratic transition falters or is otherwise thwarted or subverted or if, in the worst case – but by no means unimaginable – scenario, federal Nigeria simply comes unglued along regional, religious, and ethnic lines, it will not be long before the economic, political, and military ripples in the Niger come ashore as waves crashing over the banks of the Hudson and the Potomac.”

A large part of this strategic significance is due to the fact that, with some 35.9 billion barrels of proven petroleum reserves – the largest in Africa and the eighth largest in the world – the West African country is currently America's fifth-largest supplier of oil.

According the Department of Energy's Energy Information Administration, last year Nigeria shipped 418,778,000 barrels of oil to the U.S. (by comparison, third-ranked Saudi Arabia sold us 556,006,000 barrels last year). While the comparable aggregate figures for 2006 are still not available, during the first half of the year, the U.S. was importing approximately 1,207,000 barrels per day from Nigeria and about 1,453,000 barrels per day from Saudi Arabia.

This means that if attacks by a new militant group calling itself the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) had not cut Nigerian production by an estimated 500,000 barrels of oil per day (approximately 25 percent of output capacity), the West African country would already surpassed the desert kingdom in meeting America's energy needs.

While, like most analysts, I concluded in an earlier column that the long-simmering unrest in the Niger Delta is largely attributable to the region's underdevelopment, environmental degradation, and violence, I have also warned that it would be a serious mistake to underestimate the potential risk of al-Qaeda or other outside terrorist organization exploiting these tensions to strike at one of our vulnerabilities, our dependence on the West African subregion to supply 15 percent of our hydrocarbon needs – a figure which, according to the National Intelligence Council, is expected to rise to 20 percent over the next five years and increase to a staggering 25 percent by 2015. The threat is magnified when one factors in a datum that has been largely ignored in policy discussions regarding the Niger Delta, the increasingly Islamist dimension of the conflict.

Since last year, MEND has been responsible for a string of kidnappings of foreign contractors, armed clashes with Nigerian military and private security forces, car bombings, and attacks on oil facilities in Nigeria's Delta, Ondo, and Rivers states.

In interviews which they have given foreign journalists, the group's media-savvy spokesmen have demanded a larger percentage of oil revenues be given to communities where the oil is produced and that the money be channeled through locally-controlled foundations rather than the hopelessly corrupt state and local government authorities. While MEND's journalistic interlocutors have widely reported these reasonable enough requests, they have only mentioned in passing – if at all – the group's other demand, which is far more troubling: the release from prison of one Alhaji Mujahid Asari Dokubo.

The forty-something Asari Dokubo, né Dokubo Melford Goodhead, Jr., is an ethnic Ijaw from a Christian family who, after failing out of two universities, converted to Islam. In the early 1990s, like other unscrupulous West Africans of the period who were willing to embrace violence to achieve their political ambitions, he eventually found his way to Mu'ammar Qadhafi's Libya which, as this column has chronicled, was then nurturing aspiring warlords from throughout Sub-Saharan Africa.

Like the Liberian Charles Taylor and the Sierra Leonean Foday Sankoh before him, Dokubo received free military and political training courtesy of the Libyan strongman before being sent back to stir up things in his homeland. After making an ultimately failed bid for the leadership the Ijaw Youth Council, an umbrella group that tried to unite the various activists from the long-suffering ethic group in a separatist struggle, Dokubo founded his own militant group, the Niger Delta People's Volunteer Force (NDPVF) which, from hideouts in the Delta, engaged in a violent campaign against rival Ijaws in 2003-2004, killing hundreds and leaving thousands homeless before the Nigerian military intervened in late 2004.

Although a deal was apparently struck whereby Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo essentially paid the warlord to end the conflict, the deal fell apart within a year and Dokubo was arrested in September 2005 and charged with treason and a host of lesser charges.

Is it just coincidental that shortly after Dokubo's arrest that MEND made its appearance on the scene? Although MEND's spokesmen insist that the two groups are distinct, they have acknowledged their own “operational collaboration” with the NDPVF. Some observers question whether or not the distinction is anything more than an elaborate ruse to make it more difficult for the government to pursue its legal case against the “Mujahid.”

While most of the inhabitants of the Niger Delta are either Christians or adherents of traditional African religion, there is a growing Muslim presence, often linked with militant Islamist ideology as is the case with Asari Dokubo who is an outspoken admirer of Osama bin Laden and has drawn parallels between his struggles against the Nigerian federal authorities and al-Qaeda's “fight against the arrogance of the West.”

Furthermore, for example, following MEND's spectacular February 18, 2006, attack on Royal Dutch Shell's Forcados oil terminal, during which the militants blew up two pipelines, set a tanker on fire, and kidnapped nine foreign staff members from the U.S. petroleum services contractor Willbros, including two Americans and one Briton, jihadist websites the Middle East began posting “photos of the Lions of Nigeria after having taken prisoner some Americans” along with the proclamation: “Allah supports you, O Lions of Nigeria! These are photos of the mujahidin in Nigeria after the seizure of nine hostages from the U.S. oil companies who rob the wealth of Muslim Nigeria and of the world.”

In short, it would not require much for al-Qaeda and other foreign radical Islamist groups to establish financial and strategic links with Niger Delta militants – that is, if they have not done so already. It is a situation which the U.S. and its allies will have to monitor very carefully in the coming months, especially since the Nigerian governing classes – whose neglect of the Delta and its inhabitants is at the root of the looming crisis in the first place – will be otherwise preoccupied with electoral politics.

– J. Peter Pham is Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs and a Research Fellow of the Institute for Infrastructure and Information Assurance at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He is also an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C.