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Michael Watts Headshot

Nigeria at a Tipping Point

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As Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and her entourage arrives this week in Abuja, the bright new capital of the Nigeria, their hosts will try to put the best face on what is the gravest political crisis the country has faced since their civil war ended almost four decades ago. The uninspired government of President Musa Yar' Adua, who took office in 2007 on the back of elections massively fraudulent even by Nigeria's appallingly low standards, faces a dual political crisis. In the oil-producing Niger delta a long simmering military insurgency has crippled the oil and gas industry which accounts for over 80% of government income and virtually all of Nigeria's export revenues. A counter-insurgency by federal forces launched in May 2009 produced a ferocious response by the insurgents including in July an audacious attack on key oil installations in Lagos, the economic capital of the country.

In the north of Nigeria, the Muslim heartland and the home-base of the powerful ruling northern oligarchy, a Taliban-styled Islamist group -- Boko Haram -- was brutally repressed by government security forces in early August. Heavy bombardment of the movement's compound resulted in large numbers of casualties, and culminated in the extra-judicial killing of the movement's leader Mohammed Yusuf in Maiduguri at the hands of the police. Two key economic and political regions of the Nigerian federation are in effect under lockdown. After two years of drift and serial ineptitude, Nigeria now stands at a tipping point.

Nigeria is an oil-rich petro-state but its developmental record in one of catastrophic failure. According to IMF, the $700 billion in oil revenues since 1960 have added almost nothing to the standard of living of the average Nigerian. More than three-quarters of oil revenues accrue to one percent of the population; a huge proportion of the country's oil wealth, perhaps 40% or more, has been stolen.

The coastal waters of Nigeria, according to the International Maritime Bureau, are a pirate-haven, comparable to the lawless seas of Somalia and the Maluccas. A new report Transnational Trafficking and the Rule of Law in West Africa by the UN Office for Drugs and Crime estimates that 55 million barrels of oil are stolen ('bunkered') each year from the Niger delta. Amnesty International's report Petroleum, Pollution and Poverty in the Niger Delta released in June 2009 grimly inventories the environmental disaster caused by 1.5 million tons of spilled oil, describing the results of the slick alliance between international oil companies and the Nigerian state as a "human rights tragedy".

The turn from peaceful non-violence of the sort advocated by the famous Ogoni activist Ken Saro-Wiwa to armed struggle, culminated in the dramatic appearance in late 2005 of a new group -- the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) -- who launched a frontal attack on oil installation in the name of 'resource control' and a 'new federalism'. In three years they have in effect brought the oil industry to a standstill. Oil production has collapsed, (at least a million barrels a day are shut-in). Shell, the largest single operator, has closed its Western operations entirely, and its Eastern operations are barely functional. The head of Nigeria's Central Bank recently concluded that the country's economic future now turns on the resolution of the Niger delta crisis.

The federal government has failed conspicuously to grasp the gravity of political sentiments across the multi-ethnic oilfields. A 2007 World Bank study discovered that an astonishing 36.23% of youth interviewed revealed a "willingness or propensity to take up arms against the state". Government sees the problem almost wholly in term of criminality. But history teaches us that any insurgency is a complex mix of greed and grievance -- and one person's criminal or terrorist is another's liberation fighter. A 2009 survey poll reveals that local communities have no faith whatsoever in state and local governments. Their experience is one of exclusion, neglect and organized theft. This is no less the case with Boko Haram, a movement whose anti-Western sentiments speak powerfully to a generation of young Muslims for whom modern development and education has brought poverty, unemployment and a radical souring towards secular national development.

President Yar 'Adua announced an amnesty plan for Niger delta militants on June 25 and released Henry Okah, an important leader MEND leader, on July 13, 2009. Good news in principle. But the amnesty is simply an opportunity to address root problems as Okah put it. And there is precious little in the offing right now. Secretary Clinton arrives, therefore, at a crucial moment. Another failure of will by the government could prove to be catastrophic. MEND's ceasefire ends on September 15th. Something bold has to happen soon.

Secretary Clinton should highlight two important opportunities. First, the Nigerian senate is in the middle of debating a new petroleum bill capable of addressing some of the core concerns of Niger delta activists. Already there are signs that the new bill will ignore the voices of the oil communities. Second, the government commissioned a forty-three person Technical Committee to provide a strategy for the future of the Niger delta. The report has languished since its release in November 2008 in spite of the fact that it contains a clear blueprint for moving forward. Here at least is a place to start.