Andy Rowell

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[Update: As of September 5, 2017, 1:45 PM EDT, Hurricane Irma is a Category 5 storm.]

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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."

The British War Against the War

"What has struck me since I have started to speak out against the war is that I've been inundated by phone calls, emails and letters from all around the country. Voters are saying 'Thank God there are people who will say in parliament what people like me feel outside,'" says Alan Simpson MP. "I think the public disquiet is far greater than parliament admits."

Last week he launched Labour Against The War, a group of MPs opposed to the bombing of Afghanistan. Dissent inside parliament has been muted since the bombing started, but is now growing. "There are actually far more people expressing unease than in any of the conflicts of the past," the 53 year-old Labour MP for Nottingham South says.

But these views have not gone down well with Labour's hierarchy. One of Simpson's fellow dissenters, Paul Marsden, the MP for Shrewsbury, was told by Labour's chief whip that "war is not a matter of conscience." Simpson disagrees. "War is always a matter of conscience. It never has been the case that there was a party mandate in favour of a war." Marsden and Simpson have been likened by the Government and the whips office to appeasers of Nazi Germany.

"My reaction to that is simple. It's always unhelpful that the language of debate slips into the language of abuse and most of my political life, one way or the other, has been involved in anti-Nazi campaigns. The thing about that kind of language is that it demeans parliament. If we are defending democracy, we also have to be willing to practice it."

He says: "Some of the unease is over whether there is actually a military strategy and some is due to the fact that it may not make any sense at all to think that you can bomb an ideology in the way that you can fight a war with a country."

Others in the Parliamentary Labour Party, he says, are deeply concerned about "the sheer scale of deaths that are going to take place in Afghanistan this winter" through starvation. These "avoidable civilian deaths" would be on a "scale that vastly outstrips the equally innocent civilian lives that were lost in the terrorist attacks in America" and may lead to further violence against the West.

The danger, he argues, "is then that we recruit more terrorists than we have killed, we create regional instabilities across Central Asia and the Middle East which themselves will spawn fundamentalist rather than secular and democratic regimes."

Simpson, a man famous for being a thorn in the Labour leadership's side, applauds Blair for working so closely with America. But he hoped that Blair would act as a restraining voice, putting arguments for a strategy to counter terrorism not be based on gung-ho militarism. Blair has failed to restrain Bush, he says.

"There should be an immediate cessation of the bombing," Simpson argues. "The overriding imperative is to get food into Afghanistan to ensure that over seven million people don't starve this winter."

Simpson admits that he doesn't know whether bin Laden is guilty or not, but says that if he is to be brought to justice, the first step would be "for the so-called incontrovertible evidence to be shown to an independent international panel of judges". The agenda has to be one of justice not vengeance. "Just claiming he is guilty is not sufficient to make him guilty".

He says that the Western allies should have got a UN mandate for the specific pursuit of bin Laden. "At the same time, we should have been making it clear we want bin Laden tried before an international criminal court, preferably before judges of his own faith. Nothing would be a more devastating blow for his own network if they were to be found guilty and condemned in a court by their own faith."

Simpson argues that the current crisis should force us to build a different internationalism. "This may be an important time for re-founding the United Nations on the sort of the terms it was supposed to be based 50 years ago."

He argues that the UN is essentially a puppet for the US government. "It has never had the primacy of place that allowed it to take any significant action other than at America's bidding," he says.

He also believes that the anti-globalisation movement offers answers to the problems of global terrorism. "Many of the regions of poverty, despair and hopelessness that terrorists recruit from are found in precisely those areas stripped of wealth, stripped of influence and stripped of prospects," he says.

"This conflict is part of the consequences that this rapacious global free-for-all has dragged us into -- and it is going to get worse. The big challenge for the international community should not be how we generate a rapid increase in world trade, based on driving wages lower and profits higher and enriching northern corporations at the expense of southern citizens".

"The fundamental question we have to answer is how we set a different agenda in which the development rights of the South can be met by recognising their own needs and at the same time allowing more localised agendas of economics to re-emerge within our own countries".

He says that the world still has to address environmental issues if we want to survive this coming century. "And that is very far away from the agenda set by the USA and UK."

If we don't start putting citizens before corporations, Simpson says bluntly, "we will inevitably be drawn into wars, conflict, large scale population migration and a century of real turmoil".

Labour Against The War:

Andy Rowell is a freelance UK-based journalist with ten years experience writing on environmental, political and health issues.

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