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May 23, 2007

The Niger Delta Blues

By

With U.S. gas prices at record highs--and the peak summer driving season upon us--most Americans still think we get the bulk of our imported oil from the sands of the Middle East.

That would be, uh, wrong!

In fact, while about half of our oil comes from this hemisphere, for the first time in our glorious, gas-guzzling history, we now import more oil from Africa than the Middle East.

Africa now provides nearly 20 percent of our oil imports, making the African continent's relative geographic proximity and high-quality, "sweet" (low-sulfur) crude a real winner for American energy security.

And no African country is more important to our energy addiction than the West African giant, Nigeria-our largest oil supplier in Africa and our fifth largest globally (after Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, Mexico and Canada).

While diversifying the sources of our energy supply beyond the volatile Middle East to places like Africa is a good idea, oil-rich Nigeria has, unfortunately, been plagued by its own instability problems in recent years.

Nigerian rebel groups, including the largest, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, demand that Abuja share its oil wealth with the people of Africa's most populous country. (One in five Sub-Saharan Africans are Nigerian).

This year alone, rebels attacked oil facilities at least 20 times; over 70 foreigners have been abducted. Thousands of foreign oil workers have left Nigeria for safety reasons. Three foreign oil companies have closed up shop there.

It's gotten worse in recent weeks. Protesters occupied a Shell pipeline facility, forcing a reduction of almost 200,000 barrels per day. Rebel groups struck major pipelines to the Gulf of Guinea, too.

An Italian firm cut production by nearly 100,000 barrels; American oil giant, Chevron, evacuated hundreds of workers, slicing output by some 60,000 barrels a day due to the violence.

The result?

A precipitous 30 percent drop off in oil production, making Nigeria-Africa's largest oil producer--a key source of recent oil market jitters (alongside Iran) and a central cause of spiraling prices at the gas pump.

While the rebel's tactics are deplorable, they do have a legitimate beef with Abuja. The Niger Delta is notoriously poor; as little as 1 percent of the government's oil take trickles down to Nigeria's 140 million people.

Worse yet, oil industry corruption is a big problem, too. In broad daylight, criminal syndicates-with official complicity -- siphon off as much as $2 billion in oil every year in a practice dubbed, "bunkering."

While outgoing President Olusegun Obansanjo has paid, at least, lip service to anti-corruption measures during his two terms in office, some watchdog groups still rank Nigeria as one of the most corrupt countries on earth.

The April elections didn't help. Many had hoped for a free and fair election in what was expected to be Nigeria's first legitimate transfer of presidential power between civilian administrations. They were sorely disappointed.

Instead, Obansanjo's anointed successor, Umaru Yar'Adua, was basically crowned president with 70 percent of the vote in what the State Department called a "seriously flawed" election. Naturally, violence by well-armed rebel groups is likely to continue.

Regrettably, Nigeria's problems, especially as they relate to the oil industry, have become too important to ignore, especially as gas prices soar. But is there anything Washington can reasonably do?

First, U.S.-Nigerian relations are good. Indeed, Abuja has been an important partner of Washington in African affairs, especially on peacekeeping matters. But the United States, ultimately, has limited leverage with big, wealthy Nigeria.

Publicly lecturing Abuja on its poor public administration probably won't help, either. Nigeria has other eager suitors, including oil-hungry China, which is willing to give Nigeria a pass as long as it keeps its access to the country's prized oil.

In the end, it's going to take skilled diplomacy. Washington must engage-quietly, if necessary-Abuja to address development issues, political grievances, corruption and the ongoing security challenges, especially to the oil industry.

The Pentagon's soon-to-be-established Africa Command should work with Nigerian forces to enhance their ability to perform maritime security, stem small arms/light weapons flows and protect oil facilities in the near term.

But, in the end, getting Nigerian leaders to firmly embrace good governance is really the key to progress. Indeed, better government holds out the best promise to advance peace, stability and prosperity in Nigeria.

Peter Brookes is a senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation and the author of "A Devil's Triangle: Terrorism, WMD and Rogue States."

First appeared in Real Clear Politics

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