Nigeria: Motives Behind the Violence

8 MINS READApr 6, 2006 | 02:45 GMT
A fresh wave of violence is wreaking havoc with Nigeria's energy sector, cutting oil production in the Niger Delta. However, the militants' current goals — or more to the point, the powers behind the militants — are political rather than economic.
Another of Nigeria's many spates of violence is wracking the country's energy industry, but this time the goal of the militants, and the powers behind them, is political, not economic. Thus, no amount of bribing — the traditional Nigerian cure-all — can halt the unrest. Unlike many African countries where a single ethnic group holds all the cards within a region or across the entire country, in Nigeria different groups' power is based not just on regions, but also on different sectors. This setup produces a built-in tension as the various power/ethnic centers rub against each other continuously. For example, control of the oil revenues is an Ibo issue because of geography, a Yoruba issue because of financial expertise and a Hausa issue because of that group's control of the federal government. The situation is worsened by chronically bad government. Agriculture accounts for some two-thirds of employment in the country, but mismanagement and disastrous agricultural policies have decimated the country's cocoa, peanut, poultry, rubber and palm oil industries — once the country's economic bedrock. Much of the agriculture is now barely over the subsistence level, and the country is actually a net food importer. In order to bolster industry to soak up the labor from decimated agriculture, past governments enacted strict import substitution programs and banned the import of most beverages, fruit, vegetables, cereals, eggs, textile fabrics, mosquito netting (a very big seller in tropical Africa), jewelry and precious metals, among other things. But, as is typical in import substitution regimes in places with poorly patrolled borders, instead of boosting local production it simply led to a smuggling boom. Bureaucrats (which is to say: bureaucrats and their friends, family and acquaintances) often lend out — or themselves use — official stationery and notaries for extortion, embezzling and swindling schemes. Taken together, a destroyed agricultural sector, a moribund industrial sector, weak-to-nonexistent infrastructure and border control, fractured elites, overlapping responsibilities, a broken bureaucracy and a deep involvement in smuggling all point to corruption — and indeed in global indexes Nigeria ranks as one of the most corrupt countries. And that is without the oil that has become the country's lifeblood. In a system as dysfunctional as Nigeria's, one must never forget that despite a per-capita annual income of only $300 — down from roughly $1,500 at independence — 2005 oil revenues exceeded $30 billion. Without its oil, Nigeria's contradictions probably would have collapsed it years ago. But the oil money sloshing through the system has allowed Nigeria to thrive, even while making the already incredible levels of chaos even worse in many ways. On the one hand, the oil money eases many of the country's inherent tensions — money is, after all, a great friend-maker. But that in turn raises two problems. First, the various groups are not so cohesive or so small that their leaders can keep all their kinsmen in check after a bribe is made to someone at the top. Second, when someone is bribed, others notice. Considering the lack of options, their motivation becomes to profit from the bribing, leading them to demand benefits from the briber or the bribee. Combined with the country's fractured economic and political systems and the massive amounts of oil cash, the result is a culture in which violence becomes just another political tool. All political authorities who do not "legitimately" control a security force feel the need to develop their own in order to survive, a fact that led to the rise of dozens of rival militias, ethnic fighting clans and outright gangs. Those forces are regularly used in attempts to secure a larger piece of Nigeria's economic pie (i.e. the oil money) for groups that do not believe they are getting a fair share (or that simply want more). Such efforts against the energy industry are generally large in scale and creative in design and include, but are hardly limited to: bombing pipelines; stealing equipment; using all-female kidnapping forces to reduce the likelihood of military action; or rowing, swimming or jet boating out to a near-shore drilling platform and taking the entire facility hostage. That violence can manifest quickly nearly anywhere in the country, but is more likely to occur in areas like the Niger Delta, where the oil money flows from, or in the band of central states where the major ethnic and religious groups (Christian/animist south and Muslim north) abut each other. There are few things that can compare with the fury of a riotous mass of Nigerian Muslims demanding the imposition of Shariah law — save the fury of a riotous mass of Nigerian non-Muslims demanding the repealing of Shariah law. It is quite common for riots to result in the deaths of hundreds. Torture, beatings and extrajudicial killings are quite common and are carried out by both the armed forces and the police; and on occasion tens of thousands of people are killed in months-long orgies of violence. When Nigerian military forces are called in they do not engage in crowd control. They act directly — and not particularly efficiently — to disperse crowds, on occasion by firing directly into them (officially in an attempt to dispatch the troublemakers). Discussion of such violence is not meant to overlook smaller-scale violence such as kidnapping for ransom — a crime so endemic it has nearly achieved the rank of an independent business sector in its own right. In all cases the goal is to get a bigger slice of the pie for some group, somewhere. And since that pie ultimately comes from the oil sector, the goal is never to actually destroy the sector, just spook those — the government and the international oil companies — who run it until the palms in question are sufficiently greased. But this time around the stakes are higher. The core of the current problem is that, despite constitutional limits, President Olusegun Obasanjo wants to seek a third term. As president, Obasanjo is in essence the chief bribe distributor of the country, and there is no shortage of people — within his own People's Democratic Party, his native Yoruba tribe, his Baptist (that's polygamist Baptist, not Southern Baptist) religion, or any political, religious, civil, private or ethnic group — who want a chance to sit in his big, cash-stuffed chair. Obasanjo's political power is probably sufficient that he will be able force through a constitutional change and secure his party's nomination, and ultimately a new term. Unless of course, someone changes the rules — or more to the point, the battlefield. Which is precisely what is going on. Those who wish to see Obasanjo fade from prominence are attacking the greatest source of his power: the money he controls. So far, the attacks have been successful in suspending some 630,000 barrels per day of oil exports. Unlike previous bouts of violence in Nigeria, these militants cannot simply be bribed away because the seat of the ultimate bribe-master is what they are fighting for. For once, the powers behind the attacks do not have a purely economic goal, but a political one — they want a specific person out of a specific chair. Therefore, Obasanjo cannot simply cut them a check or increase some region's take of the oil monies. He can truly only fight back the old-fashioned way: with the army. The problem with that, of course, is that it only enflames the country's always-rollicking politics and encourages others to take potshots at his government — and its financial lifeline — as well. That is something eminently easy to do as the country remains a hub of weapons trading, and, should all else fail, there are plenty of pipelines and wells to set on fire. And though the problems currently facing the Niger Delta are not substantially different than those of past years, they are deeply troublesome to world oil markets because the motives behind the attacks — not to mention the ultimate goals and the tactics militants are willing to use to achieve those goals — seem opaque. Opening negotiations does not work. Asking the government to call in the army does not work. Paying ransoms does not work except in the extremely short term. No one is trying to destroy Nigeria as an oil producer, but somebody (or somebodies) within the system — and likely within the president's own party — sees weakening the country's oil strength as the best chance of reaching the desired political aims. So far, that motive and these means have slashed Nigeria's total production by roughly a quarter. And since the core issue is the presidential election — scheduled to happen at a date no more specific at this point than "in 2007" — the ongoing violence is something the world is simply going to have to get used to.

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