Foreign Affairs April 2006

Worse Than Iraq?

Nigeria's president and onetime hope for a stable future is leading his country toward implosion—and possible U.S. military intervention
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With an ethnically and religiously combustible population of 130 million, Nigeria is lurching toward disaster, and the stakes are high—for both Nigeria and the United States. An OPEC member since 1971, Nigeria has 35.9 billion barrels of proven petroleum reserves—the largest of any African country and the eighth largest on earth. It exports some 2.5 million barrels of oil a day, and the government plans to nearly double that amount by 2010. Nigeria is the fifth-largest supplier of oil to the United States; U.S. energy officials predict that within ten years it and the Gulf of Guinea region will provide a quarter of America's crude.

It is hardly surprising, then, that since 9/11 the Bush administration has courted Nigeria as an alternative to volatile petro-states in the Middle East and Latin America. In 2002, the White House declared the oil of Africa (five other countries on the continent are also key producers) a "strategic national interest"—meaning that the United States would use military force, if necessary, to protect it. In short, Nigeria's troubles could become America's and, like those of the Persian Gulf, cost us dearly in blood and money.

Moreover, Nigeria's problems far exceed those of the petro-states the administration hopes to sidestep. They begin with the ad hoc nature and impossible structure of the country, which even a leading Nigerian nationalist called "a mere geographical expression." The entity of Nigeria was cobbled together to serve London's economic interests. Having established the Royal Niger Company to exploit resources in the Niger River Delta, and expanded inland from there, the British found themselves by the late nineteenth century ruling territories and peoples—some 250 ethnic groups in all—that had never coexisted in a single state. They ran Nigeria as three separate administrative zones, divided along ethnic and religious lines. The Muslim north, arid and poor but with half the country's population, would eventually gain supremacy over the army. Through a succession of military dictatorships, it would dominate (and plunder) the fertile and oil-rich but disunited south, whose largest ethnic groups—the Yoruba in the west and the Igbo in the east—together represent just 39 percent of the population. Democracy, too, has favored the north, which, united by Islam and voting as a bloc, has determined the outcome of virtually all elections. In Nigeria, where one generally votes for one's religious or ethnic brethren, democracy has deepened divisions rather than healed them. Whoever holds the presidency faces an insoluble dilemma: either let the country break up, or use violence to hold it together.

Chief among the country's current woes is corruption. During the last twenty-five years, Nigeria earned more than $300 billion in oil revenues—but annual per capita income plummeted from $1,000 to $390. More than two-thirds of the population lives beneath the poverty line, subsisting on less than a dollar a day. The country's elites bear most of the blame. Since Nigeria gained independence, in 1960, its rulers—military and civilian alike—have systematically squandered or stolen some $400 billion in government money. According to a 2004 World Bank report, 80 percent of the country's oil wealth accrues to 1 percent of the population. As the journalist Karl Maier, whose This House Has Fallen stands as the authoritative work on modern Nigeria, has put it, Nigeria is a "criminally mismanaged corporation where the bosses are armed and have barricaded themselves inside the company safe." Nigeria's similarities to Saudi Arabia are manifold: corruption, oil wealth, a burgeoning Muslim population, and value to the United States as an energy supplier. Osama bin Laden has called Nigeria "ripe for liberation."

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Jeffrey Tayler is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and the author of seven books.

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