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Nigeria: The Next Quagmire?

If U.S. troops go to Africa, it won't be for a humanitarian intervention; it will be to protect American oil interests in the troubled Niger Delta.
 
 
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Africa's humanitarian needs -- today the pillage in Darfur, yesterday the famine in Niger -- dominate the headlines. Human suffering, from hunger to rape, also dominates the limited attention that Americans have for hearing about problems in the most troubled part of the world. Now that may be changing as an armed insurgency in oil-rich Nigeria threatens oil exports to the U.S. and raises the possibility that U.S. troops will dig into African soil in order to protect a resource deemed vital to American interests.

In short, Nigeria might be the next Iraq.

Putting American troops at risk in Africa would be a big change -- and speaks volumes about the new relationship between America and the sub-Saharan Africa. Ever since American troops were killed in Somalia early in the presidency of Bill Clinton, a firm rule of U.S. policy toward Africa has been to never put U.S. soldiers on African ground. For more than 10 years, American troops have studiously avoided intervening directly in African conflicts. This policy prevented the United States from trying to halt the genocide in Rwanda in the mid-1990s. More recently, this stance stopped the United States from using troops to restore order to Liberia. The policy may also stop the United States from sending troops to Nigeria.

But maybe not, because the purpose of an intervention in Nigeria would be to protect American oil -- not save lives in a humanitarian spirit. Oil drives American foreign policy as never before, and the Middle East isn't the only troubled oil-producing region. Nigeria is already one of the top-five largest exporters of oil to the United States, and the country's oil-producing region, the Niger Delta, is beset with insurgencies and criminality, some of which is directed by factions in Nigeria's own government. Two Nigerian rear admirals were court-martialed last year for their part in the attempted theft of thousands of tons of Nigerian oil by an international crime syndicate operating in Russia and eastern Europe.

Chevron and Shell, the two largest foreign oil companies operating in the Niger Delta, are targets of citizen rage, not the least because Nigeria's government has ignored social needs and political protest in the region for many years. Tensions are high, and disorder threatens to engulf the region. As the Council on Foreign Relations, a leading foreign policy group, observes in a new report, "The suppression of dissent in the [Niger] Delta, together with armed violence and the existence of armed militias, makes for a potentially explosive combination."

Kidnapping of American oil workers is common. So are protests by local residents who say their needs are neglected even as Chevron and Shell reap huge revenues from oil. Most local people lack electricity, running water, decent schools for their children and job opportunities. Tensions flare between families and between ethnic groups forced to scramble for crumbs tossed by the oil companies, which routinely try to undercut social unrest by making small donations to local communities and hiring men for make-work jobs "guarding" pipelines. Perhaps most galling to people living in the Niger Delta are the frequent gasoline shortages caused by the Nigerian government's failure to refine enough crude oil to meet its own domestic needs.

The simmering outrage felt by Delta Nigerians has deep roots. A decade ago, during a period of military dictatorship, protests against oil exploitation triggered a brutal government crackdown. The leaders of the protest were arrested and imprisoned. Some were executed, including Ken Saro-Wiwa, one of Nigeria's finest writers and a passionate advocate for social justice in the Niger Delta.

Raising the stakes

American dependence on Nigerian oil is anticipated to grow rapidly in the years ahead as new fields come online. In 2007, Nigeria expects to hold a presidential election. President Olusegun Obasanjo has not ruled out that he will run for office again, even though he has exhausted his two-term limit. U.S. officials have openly expressed dismay over the possibility of another Obansanjo election victory, saying he should abide by Nigeria's constitution and step down.

The tangling between the United States and Obasanjo, coupled with the instability in Nigeria's oil region, has prompted private discussions in Washington about the wisdom of sending U.S. troops to sort out the situation. So far the Bush administration has said nothing publicly, but a new report on the future of U.S.-Africa relations, by the influential Council on Foreign Relations, calls for the U.S. to launch a "pilot program for interdiction and to curb (oil) piracy." Such a program might involve ships and personnel from the U.S. Navy or Coast Guard.

Nigerians themselves are pondering whether they should invite U.S. intervention into the troubled Niger Delta. Late last month, Nigeria's vice president, Atiku Abubakar, told the Financial Times of London that the United States could provide more military assistance to his government. The Nigerian government is believed to want at least 200 patrol boats to guard the Delta against oil pirates and insurgents. The Financial Times has reported that the United States has provided only four old boats. In response, Nigeria has turned to China for military assistance. Last year, the Chinese, who have been scouring the globe for secure oil supplies, signed a deal to receive 30,000 barrels of oil a day from Nigeria.

Insurgent attacks on oil operations have reduced output by 20 percent, and the threat of further conflict has raised oil prices globally. Nigeria is the world's eighth-largest oil exporter and a significant factor on the world market. The Nigerian government insists it plans to impose order on the restive region, but it has failed to do so in the past. These repeated failures lend credence to the possibility of U.S. military assistance, and even American troops on the ground. One restraint on any U.S. intervention in Nigeria: concerns that American troops on the ground, or even an expanded military alliance, might merely assist corrupt factions in the Nigerian government.

There is also the danger that an American presence would provoke hostility from ordinary Nigerian citizens -- even if American soldiers were merely trying to rescue some of the American oil workers routinely taken hostage by Nigerian insurgents.

"There's widespread fear among local people in the Niger Delta that the U.S. government is preparing a military strike force to attack insurgents and release kidnapped oil workers," notes Ike Okonta, a research fellow at the Department of Politics and International Relations at Oxford University.

"This could turn out to be a disastrous venture," adds Okonta, who is the co-author of a book on oil conflict in Nigeria. "The Niger Delta is a vast and intricate maze of creeks and swamps, and the hostages could be secreted in any of these. Unless the U.S. military is able to pinpoint with accuracy where the hostages are being held, and are also able to mount a surprise rescue mission with speed and stealth, the insurgents could move the hostages to another location and, in retaliation, harm them."

Okonta warns that an American military intervention into Nigeria could get bogged down, turning into an "African Vietnam," in which U.S. troops are pitted against both a hostile local population and a highly difficult terrain.

Rather than a military move, the U.S. government should seek to broker a diplomatic bargain between the Nigerian government, oil companies and aggrieved residents of the oil-producing region. Such bargains are difficult to achieve, but the United States carries a big stick: the potential to make war in Nigeria to protect American oil sources.

G. Pascal Zachary writes regularly about Africa. He has visited Nigeria's oil-producing region for Amnesty International.