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The Niger Delta Blues

Prepared by: Eben Kaplan
October 20, 2006

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On a continent rife with civil war and famine, Nigeria stands out as a nation brimming with both promise and peril. As the world’s eighth-largest oil-producer, the country garners more international attention than its neighbors, and oil revenues have allowed President Olusegun Obasanjo to start paying down the national debt (BBC). But Nigeria also faces a raft of challenges, including militant separatists in the south, radical Islamists in the North, and a growing HIV/AIDS epidemic that keeps the country in a state of limbo. 

The most headline-grabbing challenge to Abuja is the thriving insurgency (BBC) in the oil-rich Niger Delta. Militants there complain that despite the region’s vast oil resources, its residents remain mired in poverty and subject to environmental degradation. Attacks on government forces and foreign oil workers temporarily led to a 25 percent drop in oil production earlier this year, and there’s little sign the fighting will diminish; earlier this month a group of Nigerian soldiers and Royal Dutch Shell employees were ambushed by about seventy fighters (Jamestown Foundation). An International Crisis Group report suggests the insurgency is growing ever stronger and threatens to destabilize the region’s political climate. This Backgrounder looks at the relationship between security and politics in this west African nation.

Corruption is another destabilizing force in Nigeria. Just last week, the local legislature impeached the governor and his deputy in the Etiki state on charges of embezzlement and bribery (VOA). To prevent the state from descending into anarchy, Obasanjo declared a state of emergency, dispatching a general to oversee the state, though some Nigerians question his motives (AllAfrica.com). But the removal of two corrupt politicians is just a drop in the bucket; Nigeria’s top anti-corruption agent tells the BBC that since the country achieved independence in 1960, its successive governments have stolen or wasted $380 billion.

As Africa’s most populous nation, Nigeria is also home to the continent’s largest Muslim population. Since 1999, several northern Nigerian provinces have adopted sharia, or Islamic law. This trend concerns such observers as Freedom House’s Paul Marshall, who writes that Nigeria’s breed of radical Islam has “led to riots, mob attacks, and vigilantes, producing the largest death toll in Nigeria since the civil war over Biafra in the 1960s.” At a CFR meeting earlier this year, Nigerian human rights lawyer Hauwa Ibrahim discussed the impact of Islamic law on her country.

Then there is the HIV/AIDS epidemic: Nigeria is the third-most infected country in the world (AllAfrica.com)—after South Africa and India. A report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies applauds the Nigerian government for its outspokenness and ambition in formulating a national strategy to combat HIV/AIDS, but warns that a lack of cooperation on the local level could set the program back (PDF).

Nigeria’s political situation is fragile as well. President Obasanjo’s term ends in 2007, and earlier this year the legislature refused to amend the constitution to allow him to seek a third term. If Obasanjo steps down, his successor will inherit a challenging job. CFR Adjunct Senior Fellow Princeton N. Lyman says electoral reform is essential: “If it were only Nigeria’s democracy at stake in the effectiveness of its electoral process that would be serious enough. But the truth is that Nigeria’s importance runs far beyond its borders.” Lyman helped direct a CFR Task Force on Africa, which says Africa is increasingly important to U.S. interests and calls for a greater diplomatic and intelligence presence on the continent.  

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