The Niger Delta: Nothing places Nigeria in the news lately more than the Niger Delta. Indeed, the Niger Delta is synonymous with the instability that Nigeria contributes to global oil supply and, by extension, the current global energy crisis. The Niger Delta now attracts some worrisome lexicon in the global report of news about Nigeria. For the Cable News Network (CNN), the Niger Delta is fast becoming a metaphor for “Nigerian Terrorists” or “Nigerian Oil Rebels”, whatever that means. In other quarters, Niger Delta activists are called gangsters, kidnappers and even confused with cultists and cultism. These phraseologies and associated half-truths are quite representative of international media’s perception and reporting of the ongoing unofficial debate about resource control, equity and fairness and by extension the agitation for true constitutional federalism in the “Federal” Republic of Nigeria.
It is simply worrisome that in the current global desperation about oil, the United States’, European and most of the international media chose to characterize activists in Nigeria’s Niger Delta in such dismissive and damnifying terms. There is little attempt at rigorous interrogation or clarification of the uses of such epithets in relation to the peoples of the Niger Delta and recent events there for a confounded global audience in search of answers. Even Britain, Nigeria’s colonial overlord, whose historical complicity account, at least in part, for the fragility of the Nigerian federation and continuing injustice in the Niger Delta is willing to lend its mechanism of crisis suppression as preferred solution to the calamity in Niger Delta. The United States’ approach is even more proactive as demonstrated by occasional presence of its naval warships which nuances that country’s preparedness to “come to Nigeria’s rescue if and when the need arises”.
The disposition of the United States is hardly surprising. In 1995, when Nigeria’s infamous maximum military dictator, the late Sanni Abacha judicially murdered playwright and Niger Delta environmental activist, Kenule Beeson Saro-wiwa, while countries such as Canada cut diplomatic ties with Nigeria as an act of protest, the United States preferred to sit on the fence insofar as “blood” oil continued to flow from Nigeria to the US and the operations of the latter’s multinational corporations were not undermined. Similarly, the British for good reason, namely the continued operation of the Royal Dutch Shell and other British oil interests in Nigeria, managed to settle for a softer compromise: the suspension of Nigeria from the Commonwealth. A combination of other high stake international intrigues led to the resolution, albeit temporarily, of the Nigerian crisis. In part, the lesson of the 1995 crisis in the Niger Delta was that when the chips are down American and European appetite for oil will not brook any moral interventions or such ideals as human rights and environmental justice. It is ironic that despite this pattern of doing business in the third world, America and the rest of the so-called Western democracies are quite uncomfortable with the romance between China and the rogue regime in the Sudan over China’s preferential access to Sudanese oil.
Recent agitations for oil resource control in Nigeria’s Niger Delta which results in occasional and ongoing disruption of Nigeria’s oil supply have direct impact on the global oil price. It is interesting to note how the two presumed presidential candidates of the Democratic and Republic Parties in the 2008 presidential race articulate their foreign and energy policies. Each of them appreciates the strategic position of the Middle East and its oil and that region’s overall significance in regard to global peace and a stable world order. Also, both Obama and McCain have outlined their strategies to address “America’s addiction to Middle East oil”, apologies to George W. Bush. Under both plans, alternative sources of energy and intense research and development on energy efficiency innovations are matters of priority.
It is interesting that as strategic as Nigeria is in many respects, namely as a regional power, a potential bait for Islamic fundamentalism and perhaps, most important, a strategic oil power, none of the candidates appear to articulate an American foreign and energy policy that recognizes Nigeria’s strategic significance and the current but historic crisis in the Niger Delta. None of the candidates appears to appreciate the significance of a stable or troubled Nigeria on global energy supply and other logical consequences. None of them appears to appreciate how, in comparison to the Middle East, or Hugo Chavez’s South America and other remote propositions on alternative oil sources, Nigeria and its troubled Niger Delta presents an easy but yet a unique opportunity for a creative solution. It is not suggested that Nigeria can be equated to the Middle East. Certainly, not by any measure. But Nigeria’s potential to positively impact global oil supply represents both a short term and long term solution within the practical reach of any genuine American foreign and energy policy at a time of global energy crisis that analysts project will linger for the long haul.
Ironically, the wobbly and flip flop approach of the current and successive Nigerian federal governments on the Niger Delta crisis presents an opportunity of sorts. It opens a window for external stakeholders to genuinely join in the search for a solution to the Niger Delta crisis. It will be simplistic to conceptualize the Niger Delta crisis as an exclusively Nigerian affair. In terms of its origins and historical progressions, the Niger Delta question is tied to the evolution of the Nigerian State. Ever before, and since the creation of “Nigeria” through British colonial orchestration, the Niger Delta flame has continued to be fanned by external interests within the matrix of political economy of capitalism and resource expropriation. Since 1958, the pattern of politics around Nigeria’s oil ties within the framework of colonial division of labour whereof colonial outposts served as suppliers of raw materials (in this case crude oil) for industrialized and industrializing colonial powers. Before their independence, it was easy to transfer the bio-cultural resources, including agricultural commodities or produce of colonized states by shear force. It is interesting that formal export of crude oil from Nigeria happened after independence at a time where brute force was no longer available for the colonial power establishment. That is not to say that Nigeria has ever had full control of its oil wealth. Far from that.
With colonial paraphernalia of coercion no longer available to them, external and colonial stakeholders on Nigeria’s oil wealth began to capitalize on the vulnerabilities and fragility of the colonial contraption, now the post independent Nigerian state to their parochial advantage. Access to Nigeria’s oil wealth, rather than the interest of the Nigerian peoples and the Nigeria state dictated the role of those powers in the civil war that followed less than a decade after Nigerian independence in 1960. Subsequently, western powers, notably, Britain, the United States and France have in one guise or other supported military dictatorships in Nigeria. Ironically, for them, doing oil business with nontransparent military dictatorships seemed more profitable than nudging Nigerian on to a democratic path. Even then, in attempt to massage their conscience, they are ever so quick to trace the origins of modern day corruption to Nigeria. The unequal balance of power and the unconscionable structure of the Nigerian federation that perpetuates injustice in the Niger Delta constituted minor irritations that should not be allowed to disrupt the flow of oil under military dictatorships. These external parasites on Nigeria oil know that the Niger Delta region is the goose that lays Nigeria’s golden egg. Glaringly, the region is the most deprived and short-changed in regard to the benefits of oil exploration and attendant environmental degradation. But over the years, it served the convenience of the real oil parasites to look the other way for Nigeria o resolve its “internal affairs”.
But since democracy was restored to Nigeria in 1999 after almost two decades of military dictatorships, the Niger Delta agitation has reached a heightened crescendo. It has become a visible factor and reoccurring feature of global oil and energy crisis. Clearly, the Niger Delta question has outlived the quick-fix of military dictatorships on which Britain, United States and France have relied for free flow of Nigerian oil. The characteristic confusion and paucity of initiative of the Yar’ Adua administration on the Niger Delta question creates an opportunity for Britain, United States and France to truly appreciate the frustrations of the Nigerian state and the peoples of the Niger Delta. The crisis makes clear the limits of a quick-fix and the imperative for a concerted search for a lasting solution to the Niger Delta crisis. Only few examples could illustrate the frustrations of the Nigerian peoples on the Niger Delta question was than the recent exchange of vituperations and diatribes by regional leaders of the Niger Delta and their Northern Nigerian counterparts. Such outbursts undermine the urgency for a genuine solution to the Niger Delta imbroglio that remains a sordid scare on the conscience of the Nigerian state.
Similarly, the ongoing local initiatives in Nigeria that spotlight the Niger Delta task the international media with the need for self-appraisal of their surface-scratch approach to reporting developments on the Niger Delta. Specifically, the coincidence of current historic energy crisis in an election year in the United States with a renewed crisis in Nigeria’s Niger Delta forebodes a rare opportunity. It presents a chance for both Barack Obama and John McCain to demonstrate how much they understand and appreciate the strategic position of Nigeria both as a regional and oil power and a potential flashpoint for Islamic extremism. I see a glaring gap in any American foreign and energy policy in a post 9/11 world order in which Nigeria cannot feature prominently. Despite the wobbly disposition of the Yar’ Adua government and successive federal governments on the Niger Delta question, the realities of the present and potential long term global energy crisis and the intractable crisis in the Middle East assist to leverage the case for a meaningful and concerted resolution of the Niger Delta crisis for all stakeholders in Nigeria’s oil wealth.