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Daily Times (Pakistan): VIEW: Nigeria’s road to ruin

VIEW: Nigeria’s road to ruin — Ian Bremmer
In some ways, Nigeria is plagued with the same problems facing Iraq. Various ethnic and religious groups, based in different regions, are battling for oil revenue and political clout. As in Iraq, the conflict could provoke large-scale bloodletting. Yet, unlike Iraq, Nigeria has a recent history of relatively stable democratic governance
With so much political friction in Iran and Iraq, it is easy to overlook the growing unrest in Nigeria, the world’s eighth-largest oil exporter. But Nigeria’s mounting social and political problems reveal how violence and uncertainty in yet another major energy producer is driving foreign investors out and global oil prices up.
Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo appears poised to try to amend the country’s constitution to allow himself a chance at a third term. To that end, he has marginalised many of his political rivals. Vice President Atiku Abubakar — a likely presidential aspirant in 2007 — has been harassed and isolated. Ministers suspected of less than full loyalty have been sidelined.
But Obasanjo’s adversaries have joined the battle, and the president lacks the two-thirds majority needed in both the federal and state legislatures to remain in power after next year. Two former Nigerian presidents, Generals Muhammadu Buhari and Ibrahim Babangida, publicly oppose Obasanjo’s constitutional meddling, and several governors of Nigeria’s Muslim-dominated northern states have made clear that they are determined to see Obasanjo off when his term expires in 2007.
As a result, the uncertainty surrounding Obasanjo’s plans is increasing sectional tensions. At stake is the cohesion of a state that many argue is yet another example of an artificial nation cobbled together by Europeans who did not understand their creation’s social, tribal, and religious forces.
Northern governors oppose a third term for Obasanjo because they believe it is now their turn to choose Nigeria’s president under a deal, struck with their southern counterparts when democracy was introduced in 1999, for regional rotation of the presidency. Southern governors argue that control of the presidency should remain with the south for years to come, because the north controlled the country for more than three decades of dictatorship.
Indeed, even southern governors who are not reliable Obasanjo allies appear determined to maintain their influence in the central government by ensuring that the country’s next president is a southerner. For the moment, Obasanjo offers them their best opportunity to realise that goal. Last December, 16 of Nigeria’s 17 southern governors signed the “Enugu Declaration” in support of the constitutional amendment that would permit him a third term.
This is a bad time for Nigeria’s federal government to face these distractions. The Niger Delta region, home to most of Nigeria’s oil and many of its poor people, is in turmoil. In October 2004, violence in the region forced Obasanjo’s government to negotiate with militia leader Asari Dokubu, after his men attacked a series of Royal Dutch Shell oil facilities and threatened to “burn down the area”. In December 2004, Dokubu’s militias took 75 oil workers hostage and forced Shell to shut down about 10 percent of the country’s oil supply. Dokubu then forced Obasanjo into a peace deal.
The deal did not last long. After Dokubu renewed threats to oil infrastructure last September, he was arrested on sedition charges and now faces the possibility of execution or life in prison. Dokubu’s allies have responded with new attacks. A splinter group, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, has claimed credit for several recent attacks and kidnappings of foreign workers, and says it will not retreat until Delta states gain control of the revenue produced by locally extracted oil.
There are also fears that the splintering of Dokubu’s militias has created fertile ground in the Delta for Islamist groups. A few weeks ago, a previously unknown organisation called “The Martyr’s Brigade” claimed credit for attacks on Delta pipelines, raising concerns among multinationals that mercenary resistance in the region is becoming ideological.
Whatever the motivations of the various groups, a surge of militia attacks and kidnappings over the past several weeks has now shut down roughly 20 percent of Nigeria’s oil exports and killed dozens of people. Shell has closed key facilities in the Delta after the abduction of several workers. Once a verdict is reached in Dokubu’s trial, probably this summer, violence is expected to intensify.
In addition, religious violence sparked by the Danish cartoons mocking Prophet Muhammad [peace be upon him] ripped through Nigeria in February. Angry Muslim and Christian mobs burnt churches and mosques, killing dozens of people in a series of attacks and reprisals that have deepened the sectional divide between the Muslim north and the Christian south.
If all this turmoil weren’t enough, the discovery of avian flu in the northern provinces further undermines political stability. Obasanjo has called on Muslim farmers in the area to cull their birds, a key source of protein in a region where malnutrition is a constant threat.
In some ways, Nigeria is plagued with the same problems facing Iraq. Various ethnic and religious groups, based in different regions, are battling for oil revenue and political clout. As in Iraq, the conflict could provoke large-scale bloodletting.
Yet, unlike Iraq, Nigeria has a recent history of relatively stable democratic governance. The country’s factions each have good reason to compromise before the conflict comes to a head. Northern governors could, for example, offer the southern states a larger share of Nigeria’s oil revenue in exchange for their support for a northern president.
But achieving such a compromise won’t be a smooth or predictable process. On the contrary, the risks of extended political instability and further large-scale disruptions to Nigeria’s oil output will remain high, at a time when the world can least afford it. —DT-PS
Ian Bremmer, president of Eurasia Group, the political risk consultancy, and a columnist for ‘The Financial Times’, teaches at Columbia University

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