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

Obasanjo thickened the bureaucracy by setting up offices to track government expenditures, again with few results. He established a panel to review past human-rights violations, but the principal presumed offenders, three of Nigeria's former military rulers, have refused to testify—evidence that the army remains above the law. He pledged to diversify the economy along International Monetary Fund guidelines, which entailed cutting state subsidies to the fuel sector. This proved a singularly unpopular move, because it eliminated the only dividend ordinary Nigerians have ever received from their country's oil wealth: cheap gas at the pump. General strikes ensued, turning violent at times, and the economic reforms stalled. Obasanjo's few genuine achievements—among them allowing more freedom of the press and winning forgiveness for 60 percent of the country's $30 billion foreign debt—have failed to alleviate his people's misery.

Obasanjo has shown scant appetite for tackling the crime, neglect, and inefficiency rampant in the oil sector. "Bunkering"—tapping into pipelines and siphoning oil into makeshift tankers hidden in the swamps of the Niger River Delta—is widespread; it is responsible for the loss of some 200,000 barrels a day and for catastrophic fires that have incinerated locals attempting to scoop up the runoff. Criminal gangs with government connections are said to be behind the practice—who else could hire the needed equipment?

During his first term, Obasanjo established a development commission to distribute oil revenues among the country's indigenous peoples, but its efforts have come to naught; most of the windfall oil profits of the last few years have gone toward refurbishing mansions for the elite. Oil spills and gas flares blight the delta, ruining farmland and poisoning fishing grounds. Owing to the abysmal state of its few refineries, Nigeria remains an importer of gasoline. Officials divert gas from the pumps and sell it on the black market. Fuel shortages are endemic.

Obasanjo still talks of improving the lot of his people, but his rhetoric hardly sounds over the din of mayhem and rage. Nigeria appears to be de-developing, its hastily erected facade of modernity disintegrating and leaving city dwellers in particular struggling to survive in near-apocalyptic desolation. A drive across Lagos—the country's commercial capital and, with 13 million people, Africa's largest metropolis—reveals unmitigated chaos. The government has left roads to decay indefinitely. Thugs clear away the broken asphalt and then extract payments from drivers, using chunks of rubble to enforce their demands. Residents dig up the pavement to lay cables that tap illegally into state power lines. Armed robbers emerge from the slums to pillage cars stuck in gridlocks (aptly named "hold-ups" in regional slang) so impenetrable that the fourteen-mile trip from the airport to the city center can take four hours. Electricity blackouts of six to twelve hours a day are common. "Area boys" in loosely affiliated gangs dominate most of the city, extorting money from drivers and shop owners. Those who fail to pay up may be beaten or given a knife jab in the shoulder.

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Jeffrey Tayler is a correspondent for The Atlantic and the author of Angry Wind: Through Muslim Black Africa by Bus, Truck, Boat, and Camel.

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