If corrupt is the adjective most often used to describe politics in Nigeria, the word that most aptly portrays the landscape of its oil-rich south seems to be hellish. The Niger Delta, a region of mangrove swamps and creeks in Nigeria’s south, is crisscrossed by thousands of miles of oil pipelines. Oil spills—the result of neglect by oil companies and vandalism by militants—have caused significant environmental damage in the region. The area is further scarred by “flaring” (NPR), the burning of unwanted natural gas byproduct from oil drilling, which causes acid rain and air pollution. Under government orders, this practice will end in 2008, but it has already taken a massive ecological toll.
Oil from the Niger Delta accounts for 95 percent of Nigeria’s foreign exchange earnings, but the region’s poverty and physical devastation (BBC) are producing political unrest that could undermine this economic productivity. Pervasive feelings of exploitation among Delta residents are spawning increasingly aggressive militant groups (Virginia Quarterly Review) with the ability to cripple the operations of oil companies. As an International Crisis Group report details, Niger Delta militants were organized at the village and clan level for much of the 1990s, but now are getting more sophisticated in their attempts to gain “resource control,” or a fair share of the country’s oil revenues.
The most prominent of these new militant groups is the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, or MEND. A secretive group with a core leadership that affiliates itself with other militant groups on a case-by-case basis, MEND has adeptly leveraged media attention to publicize its demands, as this new Backgrounder discusses. The group’s attacks on oil pipelines and kidnappings of foreign oil worker have reduced oil output in the Delta by more than 25 percent (Reuters), or roughly eight hundred thousand barrels per day, according to Nigerian oil officials. It’s unclear whether violence will increase ahead of Nigeria’s mid-April’s presidential elections. Some experts predict it will, but others say MEND is disillusioned with the political process and does not have a stake in the elections.
Yet presidential candidates are acutely aware they will have to address the Niger Delta crisis if elected. Though the Nigerian government claims to have the Niger Delta insurgency under control, there is broad agreement that the threat from Delta militants is, if anything, on the rise. This year, fifty-eight oil workers (Nigerian Tribune) have been kidnapped—more than in the whole of 2006. The European Union will not deploy election observers to the region due to security concerns (Independent). Jamestown’s Terrorism Focus reports that the Nigerian government recently requested "the presence of American Marines in the Niger Delta to counter growing threats by militants on vital oil facilities." The request was denied, but the United States has boosted its naval presence in the nearby Gulf of Guinea dramatically since 2004, and President Bush recently approved the creation of a unified military command for Africa, AFRICOM, scheduled to be operational in 2008. Analysts say ensuring energy security was a major reason for its creation; sub-Saharan African supplies roughly 20 percent of U.S. oil imports.