Why Africa keeps fighting over oil

Peace talks continued in Nigeria Thursday between the government and the leader of a militia group.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

At one of the main forest bases of Nigerian militia leader Alhaji Mujahid Dokubo-Asari, the man partly responsible for pushing world oil prices over $50 a barrel this week, a small television was set up last month next to a pile of DVDs. The titles varied from action movies like "Mortal Kombat" to a film on the French Revolution.

The selection gives a sense of both the violence and the spirit of resistance characterizing a conflict over the control of oil fields here and the benefits from them. The country's Niger Delta region, which produces nearly 2.5 million barrels of oil a day and accounts for 10 percent of US crude imports, is infused with a deep popular anger over pollution and the failure of oil revenues to bring development. Mr. Dokubo-Asari, who claims to command 2,000 armed fighters, earlier this week called for the immediate withdrawal of all foreigners from the delta until the resolution of political issues, including control of the country's oil resources. Peace talks continued Thursday between Dokubo-Asari and the Nigerian government.

The dispute over natural resources is at the heart of some of the most intractable conflicts in Africa today, from Sudan to Congo to Nigeria. Even amid international efforts to bring greater transparency to the continent's resource exploration, the recent strife here is a microcosm of widespread theft and mismanagement, which observers attribute to a combination of colonial-era intervention, corrupt governments, and cynical behavior by Western policymakers and multinationals.

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"Sub-Saharan African governments will receive more than $200 billion in oil revenues over the coming decade," according to Catholic Relief Services, a nongovernmental agency. "But ordinary Africans will see no such improvements so long as revenues generated by the current oil boom continue to be piped into governments lacking accountability."

International attention has focused on Dokubo-Asari since he threatened to launch an offensive known as "Operation Locust Feast" to coincide with today's 44th anniversary of Nigeria's independence from Britain. He condemned the behavior of foreign oil companies and the Nigerian government and said he would not be responsible for the safety of foreigners in the delta. ChevronTexaco, the country's third-largest oil producer, said it took the threat "quite seriously" and Royal Dutch/Shell, which pumps almost half the nation's daily output, evacuated some 250 staff and shut down 28,000 barrels a day of production.

Opinions about Dokubo-Asari's motives vary, but he and his movement campaign for self-determination and resource control for the Ijaw people, the delta's largest ethnic group. His argument that the country's oil revenues have been stolen and mismanaged by politicians in Abuja, the capital, is widely echoed across the country.

Despite more than $250 billion in oil revenues since independence in 1960, Nigeria is one of the world's poorest, and a fifth of its children die before the age of 5, according to the World Bank. It is regularly judged one of the world's most corrupt countries, according to watchdog Transparency International.

The chaos in the delta is one of many contemporary African conflicts that, in part, stem from disputes over resources. In Sudan, analysts say that rebels in the south, insurgents in Darfur in the west, and opposition supporters in the east are unhappy that the benefits of the country's oil industry, which produces 300,000 barrel a day, have hardly been felt outside Khartoum, the capital. In Congo, a conflict that began in 1998 has been sustained by the desire of armed factions to control large reserves of gold, diamonds, copper, and other minerals.

One of Dokubo-Asari's most striking demands is that Nigeria should hold a national conference to decide whether it is a viable nation. The country comprises hundreds of ethnic groups speaking hundreds of languages and was formed by British fiat in 1914, triggering difficulties between the regions, including a destructive tension between the oil-rich south and the arid but politically powerful north.

Observers say arbitrary colonial boundaries underlie many resource-based disputes in Africa, not least in the oil-rich Gulf of Guinea on which Nigeria sits. "We never bargained for Nigeria," Dokubo-Asari says.

Since independence, Nigerian regimes have been widely accused of large-scale plunder and have proved unwilling to end colonial legacies that encourage corruption, such as providing cars and housing to minor government officials. Since the return of civilian rule in 1999, the country has begun taking such antigraft measures as saving surplus oil revenues and publishing how much money is given to state and local governments. But critics say this limited progress by a small group of reformers is outweighed by a continuing culture of corruption at the federal, state, and local levels.

The government of President Olusegun Obasanjo has been vocal in its pursuit of money stolen by the late dictator Gen. Sani Abacha and his associates, but activists ask why the authorities have failed to confront living members of other notoriously corrupt military and civilian regimes.

Western multinationals are also widely accused of helping sustain graft. A report published in July by the US Senate found that US oil companies in Equatorial Guinea made payments to government officials and their relatives and formed joint ventures with companies linked to members of the country's repressive ruling clan. A consortium of Western companies including a subsidiary of Halliburton is under investigation in the US, France, and Nigeria over allegations that it made more than $150 million of illicit payments to Nigerian officials and expatriates.

Concern about corruption has resulted in a number of international initiatives to increase disclosure of payments between resource companies and governments, including the Publish What You Pay coalition of campaign groups backed by George Soros, the billionaire financier. Nigeria is among the countries that have expressed support for the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, a project first announced by the British government in 2002. Activists have expressed disappointment at the slow initial progress on the EITI work, although British officials say participation among developing countries and companies is improving.

For Dokubo-Asari, who declared a cease-fire Wednesday pending further talks with the government, progress cannot come too quickly.

"Oil is part of it but our dignity as a people is more," he says. "We want our dignity restored."

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