The Niger delta from Google maps

This is another in a series of posts based on the work by b real at Moon of Alabama. Understanding AFRICOM: A Contextual Reading of Empire’s New Combatant Command part I. The article is in three parts, part II and part III and a PDF version of the complete series is available here. This post is based primarily on part II .

(The US) strategic objective focuses on securing Nigerian and Gulf energy supplies To achieve this strategic goal, American military planners have launched a two-pronged pincher movement whose main objective is “Ring-Fencing Nigeria” from the north and south.
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(The US) is developing a coastal security system in the Gulf of Guinea called the Gulf of Guinea Guard.
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Few Americans realize the scale and significance of Nigerian oil and gas production centered in the Delta and how this complex impacts American energy security.

With the offshore oil that is being discovered in Nigerian territorial waters, Nigeria is one of the few places in the world that oil reserves may yet increase for awhile. This means almost unimaginable wealth.

Shell started commercial production of Nigerian oil in 1956. Nigeria became independent in 1960. Since that time conditions have not improved for the vast majority of the people of the Niger delta. In fact, the delta is still occupied by foreigners and conditions have probably gotten worse. Air, land, and water are seriously polluted by the flaring of gases, and oil leaks and spills.

Looking at the Niger Delta on a satellite map, probably the first thing to catch the eye is the spidery plethora of rivers and creeks weaving across the terrain. It’s an area of great ecological significance, the kidneys, quite literally, of West Africa. The mangrove forests here are the third largest of its kind on the planet, and the extent of the ecological value is known only to the locals, as the majority of scientific surveys of the Niger Delta have been done strictly for economic reasons. If you zoom in on the Delta area you will soon start seeing gas flares, the most visible sign of the results of that research. The landscape is dotted with oil and natural gas wells and the production facilities required to contain and transport these fossil fuels to foreign lands, and gas flaring here has long been a problem.

In their efforts to get to the oil underneath, the extraction industries have typically burned off the gas reserves that have collected on the top of these deposits, allowing large gas flares to burn for years, adding toxins into the atmosphere which then return to poison the lands and those living there. It is said that “some children have never known a dark night even though they have no electricity.”

Shell has dealt with a succession of Nigerian governments, made payments as needed, and totally ignored the living conditions and needs of the people whose wealth they were extracting. Had Shell had any sense of corporate responsibility, or concern for human rights and safety, it could easily have pressured successive Nigerian governments into treating their citizens with more dignity and respect, returning some of the wealth, and facilitating genuine development, education, healthcare, and jobs for the people of the delta. Shell, and the other oil companies always had the economic clout. Development would be cheaper than war. They never had the good sense or good will.

Buhari, (a current candidate for President) in his earlier authoritarian rule, had centralized much of the power in Nigeria, especially sticking it to the states in the Delta, dropping their share of Nigeria’s oil rent revenues over a period of two years from 20 to 1.5 percent. (emphasis mine) But then Obasanjo himself, (the current President) during his rule in the 1970s, had laid the ground for Buhari by seizing lands and granting the oil majors rights to exploit the Niger Delta and, hence, its people, further undermining their abilities for representation and retaining control over their own lives.

In fact Shell, and the other oil companies operating in the delta, are trying to persuade the US that the local resistance movements, in search of self determination and a share of resources, are terrorists, and that the oil companies need backup from the US military in dealing with them.

And the US military is responding.

Much has been made of the attempts to link these resistance groups into the GWOT, especially on the part of the oil companies, in order to use the power of the U.S. military to stabilize these areas and secure the energy flows.

However times are changing.

The volatility surrounding oil installations in Nigeria, and elsewhere in the continent, is used by the U.S. security establishment to justify foreign (and domestic) military presence in African oil producing states while contributing to the oil industry’s windfall profits. Yet the depth of resentments, and the military capabilities of insurgent groups armed in large measure through oil theft suggests that the oil companies’ operations – what they call their social license to operate – may be in question.

The US risks further damaging itself by fighting against democracy in the form of local people who want self determination, and a share of the wealth generated in their own home. And Nigerians, and other citizens of Africa and the world, can look at the disaster the oil wars have created in Iraq as a warning of what could happen in the Niger delta. But the US does not appear to be learning the right lessons yet. In fact, as long as Bush and Cheney run things, there is no chance of the US learning, and turning in the right direction. The US military now appears to be planning to develop techniques of riverine warfare to fight the peoples of the delta. And the US is missing the bottom line. It would be cheaper to work with the peoples of the Niger delta than it is to fight against them. The problem is that it would be complicated, and require people who know something about the place and the people, not a characteristic of Bush and his cronies.