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

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."

The "ripening" began soon after what seemed the dawn of a new era: the sudden death, in 1998, of the military dictator Sani Abacha and the subsequent election to the presidency of the retired general Olusegun Obasanjo. Now sixty-nine and in his second term, Obasanjo had been imprisoned by Abacha in 1995 for allegedly plotting a coup; he emerged from prison in 1998 a national hero.

In a country where ethnicity trumps citizenship, religion trumps ethnicity, and power trumps religion, Obasanjo seemed the ideal compromise candidate. As a Yoruba, he would placate the most prominent and progressive ethnic group in the southwest. As a Christian, he would appeal to 40 percent of Nigerians (also largely in the south). As a professional soldier, he had clout in the north as well, and would be able to restrain the military and forestall any uprisings by out-of-power generals. And as a democrat of international repute (he is a former candidate for United Nations secretary-general and a friend of Nelson Mandela and Jimmy Carter), he would convert Nigeria from the pariah state left behind by Abacha into an internationally respected regional power.

Sixty-two percent of Nigerians voted for Obasanjo in 1999, giving him a hefty mandate and showing that he had indeed won support outside his own ethnic and religious groups. He immediately set about undoing, or appearing to undo, the legacy of nearly three decades of mostly military rule. Announcing that he was "fully committed to using all appropriate means and resources to ensure that every man, woman, and child will perceive and reap the benefits of democracy," he established a commission to investigate allegations of corruption. However, nothing substantive has resulted—except that the commission has accused Obasanjo himself of taking bribes.

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.

The U.N. Human Development Index ranks Nigeria as having one of the worst standards of living, below both Haiti and Bangladesh. For all its oil wealth, and after seven years of governance by one of Africa's most highly touted democrats, Nigeria has become the largest failed state on earth.

Obasanjo claims to have been born again in prison, and he is prone to wearing his religion on his sleeve—a matter of controversy in a country that is half Muslim and nearly half Christian. He has exhorted Nigerians to "return to God," and many have done so, though not as he intended. Following the death of Abacha, a Muslim, the northern twelve of Nigeria's thirty-six states, acting against the constitution, imposed sharia. Many Christians in those states rioted. When asked about the role of sharia in the country's sectarian violence, Obasanjo (apparently unwilling to risk confrontation with the Muslims and, by extension, the military), said only, "Sharia is for the Muslims as the Ten Commandments [are] for a Christian."

The religious tensions commingle with ethnic ones. Obasanjo has lifted many dictatorial strictures on daily life, but in the absence of effective security forces, this has only heightened clashes among the populace. During his rule, the most lethal period of unrest in the country's history, more than 10,000 people have died. One of the worst zones of conflict is the Niger River Delta in the south, the site of most of Nigeria's mainland petroleum reserves. In recent years, numerous attacks by militias under the rebel leader Alhaji Dokubo-Asari have forced multinationals (against whom Dokubo-Asari has promised "all-out war") to cease pumping, causing oil prices on the world market to spike. Threats also emanate from the north, one of the most radicalized areas of Muslim black Africa.

The security forces that Nigerians expected Obasanjo to bring to heel still act as a caste unto themselves, extorting and killing with impunity. Armed robbers outgun the police, who receive their salaries months late. Many officers have turned to releasing accused criminals from jail in return for bribes. Citizens seeking revenge have murdered police officers and soldiers, whose comrades have undertaken murderous reprisals. Obasanjo has adopted a malignant policy of laissez-faire, saying, "The military should not be pampered, but the military should not be bashed." Across much of the country, anarchy reigns.

Rumors are circulating that Obasanjo may seek a third term in next year's elections, although he is constitutionally prohibited from doing so. Whether or not he stays on, his country's troubles may eventually entangle the United States. One particularly ominous scenario looms: rebels may succeed in halting oil extraction in the delta, drying up the revenues on which the northern elites depend. If, in response, a northern Muslim general were to oust the president and seize power, the United States would find itself facing an Islamic population almost five times Saudi Arabia's, radicalized and in control of the abundant oil reserves that America has vowed to protect. Should that day come, it could herald a military intervention far more massive than the Iraqi campaign.