Can Goodluck Jonathan survive Nigeria’s oil wars?

In my archive of all-time great oil pieces is a 2002 opus by Norimitsu Onishi in the New York Times which, in addition to taking us deep into the Niger Delta, noted the country’s rise from backwater to crucial U.S. strategic interest. Following 9/11, the Bush administration had launched a systematic effort to shift U.S. ...

PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty Images
PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty Images
PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty Images

In my archive of all-time great oil pieces is a 2002 opus by Norimitsu Onishi in the New York Times which, in addition to taking us deep into the Niger Delta, noted the country's rise from backwater to crucial U.S. strategic interest. Following 9/11, the Bush administration had launched a systematic effort to shift U.S. oil dependence from the Persian Gulf to Africa. From 15 percent of the U.S. supply, the Bush administration aimed for Africa to supply a full quarter of U.S. oil by 2012. Nigeria would be the biggest component, adding a million barrels a day to its production of 2 million barrels a day of among the lightest, most valuable petroleum on the market.

Today, the United States is nowhere near that target. Africa supplies about 18 percent of total U.S. oil imports, or just 11 percent of total consumption. Of that, Nigeria supplies only about 960,000 barrels a day, equivalent to 10 percent of U.S. imports, or 5 percent of total daily consumption.

In my archive of all-time great oil pieces is a 2002 opus by Norimitsu Onishi in the New York Times which, in addition to taking us deep into the Niger Delta, noted the country’s rise from backwater to crucial U.S. strategic interest. Following 9/11, the Bush administration had launched a systematic effort to shift U.S. oil dependence from the Persian Gulf to Africa. From 15 percent of the U.S. supply, the Bush administration aimed for Africa to supply a full quarter of U.S. oil by 2012. Nigeria would be the biggest component, adding a million barrels a day to its production of 2 million barrels a day of among the lightest, most valuable petroleum on the market.

Today, the United States is nowhere near that target. Africa supplies about 18 percent of total U.S. oil imports, or just 11 percent of total consumption. Of that, Nigeria supplies only about 960,000 barrels a day, equivalent to 10 percent of U.S. imports, or 5 percent of total daily consumption.

Onishi’s piece came up in my class at Georgetown the other night in a fairly lively debate over what happened to Nigeria over the last decade. For the past five years, as any casual newspaper reader knows, the country has been more or less a poster child for what can go wrong in a petrostate. That has not been a result of the “resource curse”, the theory that oil dooms its possessors to all manner of terrible fates. Though petroleum drilling has produced its own set of troubles, Nigeria has suffered from a crippling array of other problems as well: ignorant tribal fiddling by the British, who combined a bunch of fanatically antagonistic tribal lands into one gigantic, inherently unstable region to create Nigeria; a revenue-depleting population of 150 million people (compared with 15 million in petrostate Kazakhstan and 28 million in Venezuela); and government failure that includes electrification of just one-third of the country’s homes, a general lack of safe drinking water, and abject poverty within the very coastal region that contains the oil riches.

Add to that the oil history itself — a tradition of oil-borne turbulence going back to palm oil riots in 1895; a half-century legacy of offshore oil spills equivalent to one Exxon Valdez every year; and a ranking at the bottom of Transparency International’s list of corrupt countries for the last dozen years — and you get today’s mess.

For the last decade and more, people of the Delta have stopped standing by idly and watching. Since 2005, a militant group calling itself the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) has cut the country’s oil production by a third — to around 2 million barrels a day, from a previous 2.9 million barrels a day — with its attacks on the oilfields. MEND started out as an idealistic movement aiming to bring the fruits of the oil riches to the poor Delta, but in recent years has appeared to be dominated more by simple economics — many of its current active followers are just looking for a paycheck.

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, who comes from the Delta and is running for re-election in January, faces a challenge not just from the other candidates in the race but also from this continuing unrest in the Delta. Last year, thousands of militants quit in a rich government amnesty, but early this year MEND members, often tempted by the big money, went back to their bad behavior. Jonathan has ordered robust attacks on MEND. Two weeks ago, Nigerian forces managed to liberate 19 hostages, including two Americans, two French nationals, two Indonesians, and a Canadian. Yet the attacks go on. Two weeks ago, MEND militants kidnapped eight Exxon oil employees. A week ago, they attacked an oil pipeline. The month started off with militants attacking a rig, shooting two oil workers and temporarily kidnapping seven others. (One of the best descriptions of this business came in a piece last December by Nick Schmidle in the New York Times Magazine.)

One bit of positive news is that, unlike a few years ago, this chaos has not disturbed global oil prices, since now there are about 6 million barrels of spare global oil production capacity. Nigeria is still a crucial player in the world despite its troubles: That’s founded on its 37 billion barrels of proven oil reserves, the 10th largest in the world, plus its natural gas, which accounts for 10 percent of world supply of liquefied natural gas and 25 percent of Europe’s LNG.

As for the Bush-era target for Africa, one of my students argued that other states will make up the difference for Nigeria’s instability, such as Angola and Equatorial Guinea. That seems a stretch.  That said, never underestimate humanity’s capacity to tire of war — and when people are so exhausted, as a smart Unocal executive once told me, they generally turn to trade.

<p> Steve LeVine is a contributing editor at Foreign Policy, a Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation, and author of The Oil and the Glory. </p>

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