Is Nigeria The Next Persian Gulf?

This week there will be ceremonies in over 30 countries from India to Ireland, Pakistan to Bangladesh, from the UK to the US in memory of the activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight of his compatriots who were executed by the Nigerian military 10 years ago.

On November 10, 1995, Saro-Wiwa and the others were hung after a sham trial condemned as "judicial murder" by Britain's then Prime Minister John Major. Their real crime had been to take on the might of the oil giant Shell and one of the world's most brutal military dictatorships.

Saro-Wiwa and the others were from Ogoniland, a small densely populated region of the Niger Delta, where Shell had found oil in the '50s. While the company had grown rich from the profits extracted from the Delta, the communities lived in poverty, lacking basic facilities such as health care and clean water. In the early '90s, Saro-Wiwa and the Ogoni mobilized, holding a rally in January 1993, where some 300,000 Ogoni protested against Shell.

"The march is against the devastation of the environment," said Saro-Wiwa. "It is against the non-payment of royalties. It is anti-Shell. It is anti-federal government, because as far as we are concerned the two are in league to destroy the Ogoni people."

Views like these set him and the Ogoni on a collision course with the authorities that would lead to his repeated detention, torture and murder.

In the 10 years since their deaths, little has changed in the Niger Delta. Oil remains its curse. The communities are still locked into a cycle of extreme poverty, widespread unemployment, environmental pollution, and social injustice that has increasingly manifested itself in violent conflict.

The spiral of violence has intensified in the last few years with the "bunkering" or siphoning of oil from pipelines, which is then sold onto the black market. This generates vast sums of cash with which rival groups have been able to buy arms. When one of those involved, Alhaji Dobuko Asari, leader of the Niger Delta People's Volunteer Force, threatened all-out war in September 2004, the international oil price rocketed to $50 per barrel for the first time. Although a peace deal was signed, Asari was later arrested and charged with five counts of treason last month. He could face the death penalty if convicted.

The oil-fueled violence continues. Just last week, Amnesty International issued another damning report. "Today, the exploitation of oil in the Niger Delta continues to result in injustice, violence and deprivation" it concluded. Amnesty highlighted how in February this year, soldiers from the Nigerian military fired on protesters at Chevron's Escravos oil terminal. One demonstrator was shot and later died from his injuries, and at least 30 others were injured.

"It is like paradise and hell. They have everything. We have nothing" argues Eghare Ojhogar, the chief of the local community. "If we protest, they send soldiers. They sign agreements with us and then ignore us."

That same month, February, at least 17 people were reported to have been killed and two women raped when the military raided the community of Odioma in Bayelsa State in gunboats. Although the military had been ostensibly sent to arrest members of an armed vigilante group, the roots of the violence lay in a dispute between communities over control of land planned for oil exploration by Shell Nigeria. Oil remains at the heart of the conflict. Oil is the conflict of the Delta.

But another dangerous ingredient is being added to the tinderbox of the Niger Delta. It is the gas-guzzling requirements of the United States and its unstoppable thirst for oil and gas. Within the next few years some 25-30 percent of American oil will come from Africa, primarily West Africa and Nigeria.

While the U.S.'s response to 9/11 has been to wage wars in Afghanistan and Iraq under the banner of protecting national security, the U.S. has also sought new ways of protecting economic security. This means protecting energy diversity, and getting your oil from as many places as possible, especially outside of the troublesome Persian Gulf. America now sees Nigeria and the other countries in the Gulf of Guinea as the "Next Gulf" -- a counterweight to the Middle East. Increasingly Nigeria will play a strategic role in America's energy needs, whether the communities of the Delta want it or not.

There have been repeated calls from a variety of influential right-wing and neo-conservative think-tanks in Washington to declare the Gulf of Guinea an area of "vital interest" to the U.S., which needs to be protected by American military might. Among those calling for greater U.S. intervention are the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute and Center for Strategic and International Studies.

In July this year, CSIS recommended that the U.S. should "make security and governance in the Gulf of Guinea an explicit priority in U.S. foreign policy." To this end, it recommended a "special assistant to the President and Secretary of State to coordinate U.S. policy in the region." It also recommended that the Gulf of Guinea should become a regular item on the agenda at G8 meetings.

"EUCOM can play a leading role in regional stabilization," David Goldwyn from CSIS's Energy Program says, "and their British and French equivalents can help too." Britain and the U.S. already have a close working relationship called the UK-US Energy Dialogue where they have agreed to cooperate on "promoting the security and diversity of future international energy supplies." This includes Nigeria.

America is becoming more dependent on Nigeria as every day passes; not just for oil but for imported natural gas. The country's vast gas reserves are just beginning to be developed after decades of being flared; a process that caused huge ecological and social problems. As U.S. imports of imported natural gas rocket, Nigeria will become a key supplier. Chevron calls Nigerian gas "very, very important for the U.S.," offering "powerful reasons to strengthen U.S. relationships with Africa."

These strategic reserves need to be protected. Over the last few years, EUCOM, the U.S. European Command has become increasingly interested in Africa, both from an energy and terrorism perspective. Earlier this year in June, General Wald from EUCOM spoke at a major oil and gas conference in London on "measures to protect oil operations in the Gulf of Guinea." Three months later Wald's boss, General Jones, the head of EUCOM, told a Senate Foreign Relations Committee that because 25 percent of America's oil coming would becoming from Africa within the next few years "security cooperation is more important now than ever."

Slowly but surely America is intensifying its military operations on the continent. Last month, Pentagon officials secured agreements with eight to 10 African nations to allow the U.S. military to utilize air fields and other suitable sites to establish "cooperative security locations," from which it can launch military strikes.

America is also quietly increasing its military presence in Nigeria -- indeed one of the people killed in the recent plane crash near Lagos was a U.S. Army officer assigned to EUCOM and stationed in Nigeria to provide security assistance between the U.S. and Nigerian military. One manifestation of this cooperation is the emergence of American weapons in the Delta. "There is clearly an increase in U.S. weapons in the hands of the Nigerian army and navy," argues Patrick Naagbanton, Director of the Niger Delta Project for Environment, Human Rights and Development.

Many in the Niger Delta worry about increasing American military intervention. What is best for American energy security is not best for the millions of people who live in the Delta. It can only heighten tensions and in all probability lead to more violent conflict.

Ledum Mitee is the current President of MOSOP -- the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People, the organization that Saro-Wiwa once led. He was imprisoned along with Saro-Wiwa, but later freed. "The American policies that have had a doubtful effect in the Middle East, have therefore focused their attention around the Gulf of Guinea," he says. "It is not people-centered. It is just barrel-centered. It could become so bad that in five year's time it will be very difficult to get a barrel of oil without a life."


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