March 1, 2007 | The National Interest

The Battle for Nigeria

WITH AROUND 36 billion barrels of proven petroleum reserves-the largest in Africa and the eighth largest in the world-Nigeria is America's fifth-largest supplier of oil. In 2006, the United States imported an average of 1,139,000 barrels of oil per day from the West African country, according to the Department of Energy's Energy Information Administration. By comparison, third-ranked supplier Saudi Arabia sold us a daily average of 1,456,000 barrels.

Nigeria’s significance to American interests goes beyond energy supplies. At a time when the demands on the United States stretch beyond capacities, Nigeria has emerged as the principal African contributor to peacekeeping missions, including the embattled African Union Mission in Sudan (AMIS) in the Darfur region. In December, Nigeria offered 1,800 soldiers—the first country to so step forward—to the stabilization force that the United Nations Security Council unanimously authorized for war-torn Somalia. Nigeria has also been at the forefront of regional and international diplomatic initiatives, including the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), Africa’s most effective sub-regional grouping; the African Union (AU) and its African Peace and Security Council; and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) peer-review mechanism.

Moreover, as the Bush Administration’s democracy promotion exercise in the Middle East flounders amid Iraq’s sectarian strife, the value of an oil-rich nation—with a Muslim population three times that of Saudi Arabia and a budding democracy—lending strong diplomatic support cannot be underestimated. Since 9/11, the government of President Olusegun Obasanjo has used its considerable heft in Africa (Nigeria’s 140 million people make the country by far the most populous African state, with a demographic weight equal to second-ranked Egypt and third-ranked Democratic Republic of Congo combined) to forge an anti-terror consensus.

Considering America’s strategic reliance upon Nigeria, the African country gets short shrift in Washington. The goings-on in Abuja certainly get nowhere near the attention as what happens in a number of capitals of countries much more peripheral to U.S. interests, to say nothing of what goes on in Riyadh.  This may change very quickly, however, if any of several forces in Nigeria succeed in destabilizing the West African giant. To give just one example, last year’s attacks by the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), a new militant group, cut Nigerian oil production by an estimated 500,000 barrels of per day (approximately 25 percent of output capacity). Absent these attacks, the West African country probably would have surpassed the desert kingdom as a supplier of America’s energy needs.

IN RECENT years ethnic divisions—a historical problem in Nigeria; recall the 1967–1970 Biafran War, when more than one million died as the Igbo in the east tried unsuccessfully to secede—have taken on a religious dimension with “Muslim” groups (Hausa, Fulani) pitted against “Christian” groups (Igbo, Yoruba). In fact, Nigeria’s almost equal numbers of Christians and Muslims have been dancing very close to the precipice since 1999. In that year, twelve predominantly Muslim northern states (out of a total of 36 states plus the federal capital territory of Abuja) adopted separate legal codes based on Islamic law over the objections of Christian and other religious minorities, as well as protests from the southern and central states of the federation. The resulting riots have claimed an estimated 10,000 lives and caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage.

Outsiders quickly recognized the potential for mischief here. No less a figure than Osama bin Laden, in a February 11, 2003 audio message broadcast by Al-Jazeera, declared Nigeria as one of the six “most qualified regions for liberation” (the other five were Jordan, Morocco, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen) from “their unjust and renegade ruling regimes, which are enslaved by the United States.” Islamist radicals have taken Bin Laden up on his suggestion, increasing their activities to exploit the local religious and political tensions and prepare for further penetration. They have not yet opened a full-fledged African front in their fight against the West, as a number of jihadi strategists have advocated.

In this context, even local grievances often spiral into global concerns. The MEND attacks on oil facilities in the Niger Delta, while largely fueled by ethnic grievances over environmental damage and political neglect, have a link to bigger conflicts. MEND itself is largely a “rebranding” of the Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force, a group active until the late 2005 arrest of its founder, Asari Dokubo—a convert to Islam trained in the same camps that produced Liberia’s Charles Taylor and Sierra Leone’s Foday Sankoh. Dokubo admired Bin Laden, basing the struggle against Nigerian authorities on Al-Qaeda’s “fight against the arrogance of the West.” Photos of MEND attacks against petroleum installations, including a December 15, 2006, attack on a Shell oil facility in southeastern Bayelsa state, have appeared on radical Islamist Web sites with captions describing the combatants as “the mujahidin in Nigeria” who are fighting “U.S. oil companies who rob the wealth of Muslim Nigeria and of the world.”

The reference to oil majors is not accidental. For several years jihadi strategists, drawing lessons from fighting the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, have discussed focusing on the West’s soft economic underbelly. This leads to the West African sub-region of Nigeria that supplies about 15 percent of America’s hydrocarbon needs, but which, according to the National Intelligence Council, is expected to account for 20 percent in five years and 25 percent by 2015. This supply is at far greater risk than many realize, especially considering threat, vulnerability and cost. Unfortunately, Nigerian officials downplay danger for fear of losing investments, while their American counterparts are often altogether oblivious.

Nigeria’s political system itself threatens the country’s future. President Obasanjo started with such promise, including hope that the country would return to stable civilian rule. His administration can claim credit for a number of policy successes, including a historical debt relief concession from the Paris Club that wipes out some $30 billion of the country’s $37 billion external debt. The government has also taken steps to fight the endemic corruption that long plagued the country’s political, economic and social development. The federal Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), established in 2004, has been charged with investigating, prosecuting and punishing economic and financial offenses and other related corruption, though some have criticized its enforcement as arbitrary and politically motivated.

The problem is that, like too many African leaders, the reformist gradually lost momentum and became reluctant to leave office. His supporters tried (unsuccessfully) to push through a constitutional amendment that would allow incumbent presidents and governors to seek third terms. The ensuing debate consumed much of the nation’s political attention and energy through most of Obasanjo’s second term, when it should have been preparing the polls scheduled for April 14 and 21, 2007, for the state and national elections, respectively. Little effort was made to overhaul the country’s voter rolls, much less tackle the institutional problems with conducting a poll in a country like Nigeria. Lack of personnel and equipment—and some would add political will—delayed the start of a national voter registration campaign until well into the fall of 2006.

As a result, the country is woefully unprepared for its most important elections. Originally, the deadline for voter registration was December 14, 2006, but at that point Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission admitted to having registered only ten million people out of sixty to seventy million eligible voters. A new registration was required because the voter register from the 2003 poll—if it is still available; accounts differ—is not considered reliable, with observers noting that it contains ten to twenty million fraudulent names. The new registration utilized computerized “direct data capture” (DDC) machines, which record each voter’s personal information, photo and thumbprint and issue identification cards. Procurement and other delays led to an exceptional shortage of the units. In early December, Imo state in the south (population four million) had received only 82 machines with which to register eligible voters.

The commission’s head subsequently declared his organization would continue to register until the February 14, 2007 deadline—but even that would require processing almost one million voters a day. (During a visit to Nigeria in late November and early December, I witnessed no registration activity. In fact, after seven days in Abuja, the only evidence I saw that such activity took place was a billboard encouraging it—and that piece of publicity, which gave no indication of where a potential voter might register, was located twenty kilometers outside the capital on the road to Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport.) Thus there is very real concern about disenfranchisement tainting the upcoming poll even before the ballots are cast.

The campaign itself also poses problems. It is easier to launch a political party than ever before, and since Nigeria’s return to civilian rule in 1999 the number of parties has grown from three to more than fifty. Little distinguishes them other than personalities and, more worrisome, appeals to ethnic, sectarian and regional differences. The parties have produced bewildering constellations of regional and national alliances.

Follow this closely: The ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) gave its presidential nomination to Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, the sickly governor of Katsina state in the north whose older brother served as Obasanjo’s deputy during the latter’s earlier military rule. Yar’Adua’s running mate will be Goodluck Jonathan, a governor from oil-rich Bayelsa state in the Niger Delta whose wife is under indictment for money laundering. After Ahmed Sani Yeremi, the governor of Zamfara state who precipitated the nationwide sharia controversy by introducing it in his northwestern state, bowed out, the nomination of the main opposition All Nigeria People’s Party (ANPP) went to Muhammadu Buhari—the former military chief who overthrew Nigeria’s last elected president in 1983 and who lost the contested 2003 election to Obasanjo. A northern Muslim who hails, like Yar’Adua, from Katsina state, Buhari’s strong Islamist views concern Nigerian Christians and southerners alike. The other major opposition party, the Action Congress Party (ACP), gave its nomination to the sitting vice president, Atiku Abubakar, who was suspended from the PDP for allegedly diverting $125 million to his personal accounts after falling out with President Obasanjo over the proposed third term. Abubakar’s switch to the opposition while serving as vice president has added a constitutional crisis to the electoral season (Nigeria’s constitution can be read to require that the vice president belong to the same party as the president).

Complicating this otherwise three-way race—there are also a handful of minor candidates—is the electoral compact between the ANPP and the ACP, an agreement to unite behind a single opposition candidate. While the two parties are collaborating in local races, it remains uncertain whether either of the two standard bearers can be convinced to back down for the other. Furthermore, while northerners explain the fact that all three major candidates are northern Muslims as a “power shift” away from Obasanjo, an evangelical Christian from the southwest, many southerners view it more ominously.

Observers are anxiously watching Aso Rock (site of the presidential villa in Abuja) for indications of the incumbent’s real intentions. Some take the PDP’s choice of Yar’Adua, made with President Obasanjo’s support, as a “stealth” play: the governor is the “anointed” successor who will presumably coast to “victory”—a victory for formal constitutionalism if not substantive democracy. Given Yar’Adua’s weak health and his running mate’s potential legal difficulties, it is argued that Obasanjo means to continue ruling behind the scenes, achieving a de facto third term. Others, noting the troubled electoral process to date, believe the president has engineered the system to fail. That way, he can secure a formal extension of his power. Still others hope the process will unfold democratically, with Obasanjo stepping down on May 29, 2007, in a legitimate transition.

Thus this year is a critical one for both Nigeria and the United States. If President Obasanjo peacefully and constitutionally hands over power to an elected successor, he will not only achieve a feat that no other Nigerian leader has ever managed, he will make a significant contribution to regional stability and international security, including the strategic interests of the United States. This would secure America’s access to the West African country’s important petroleum resources and show that a large Muslim country other than Turkey can make progress along Samuel Huntington’s definition of democratic consolidation (two consecutive peaceful changes of government via free elections). If, on the other hand, Nigeria falters or simply comes unglued, it will not be long before the economic, political and military ripples in the River Niger wash ashore on the banks of the Hudson and Potomac. With America fixated on Iraq, Nigeria’s troubles remind us of other vital interests to attend to.

J. Peter Pham is director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University.