October 8, 2012
By Finian Cunningham
Nigeria, Africa’s top oil producing nation, is witnessing a surge in sectarian violence that is destabilizing the central government and threatening to split the country in two.
On the surface, a militant group known as Boko Haram appears to be the protagonist. But some believe that powerful Western interests are using the violence to consolidate foreign control over Nigeria’s vast oil wealth.
With a population of 160 million, Nigeria is the known as the “giant of Africa”. In addition to crude oil, Nigeria has also the biggest reserves of natural gas among Sub-Saharan nations. Western energy companies are gearing up to tap this wealth even further in the coming years. Balkanising the country into North-South entities would undermine the central government in Abuja and bolster exploitation by these corporations.
Recent national security concerns by the US government and its Western allies, Britain and France, have featured West Africa as a new global priority. These powers have warned against the rise of so-called terrorism in the region and are citing this threat as a reason for expanding their military presence in Burkino Faso, Cote D’Ivoire, Mali and Niger. Britain’s former colony Nigeria is emerging as a supposed top Western security concern.
The cold-blooded slaughter last week of 25 students and staff at a college dormitory in northern Nigeria has been linked to the militant group, Boko Haram.
The secretive sect is blamed for nearly 1,400 killings since 2009, involving a campaign of terror that has seen bomb and gun attacks on government buildings, police stations, communication facilities, churches and even mosques.
On the country’s Independence Day last Monday night, a group of unknown armed men entered the Federal Polytechnic premises in the northeastern town of Mubi. The attackers called out students by name, according to local police, and then proceeded to execute the victims by gunshot or by slitting their throats with knives.
The killings have since sparked a desperate exodus of students from the town, and the region has become gripped by heightened fears of further bloodshed.
Boko Haram seems the most likely culprit. The reclusive network is said to want to impose a strict version of religious law and to ban all symbols of Western influence, including the central government of President Goodluck Jonathan. Western commentators have labeled the group “Nigeria’s Taliban”.
However, some Nigerian analysts believe that the organization is being used by powerful external forces as a conduit for destabilizing Nigeria. Political analyst Olufemi Ijebuode says: “The upshot of this latest massacre is to destabilize the state of Nigeria by sowing sectarian divisions among the population. The killers may have been Boko Haram operatives, but Boko Haram is a proxy organization working on behalf of foreign powers.”
“The bottom line is that this murderous attack, as with many, many others in recent years, is saying that the Nigerian government is not in control of its own country,” adds Ijebuode.
A timeline of Boko Haram’s insurgency shows a remarkable increase in violent capability. The group was first formed in 2002 in the city of Maiduguri, the northeast most state of Borno. However, it was not until mid-July 2009 that it adopted violent tactics, apparently following a heavy-handed crackdown by Nigerian security forces that involved extrajudicial killings of leading members.
In these initial violent clashes, supporters of Boko Haram were armed with rudimentary means, such as attacking police stations with motorcycles laden with fuel and even using bows and poison-tipped arrows.
Within two years, the group had acquired assault rifles and was able to mount bomb attacks in the capital Abuju, including one on the police headquarters in June 2011. Two months later, in August 2011, the United Nations headquarters in Abuja was bombed, killing 24 people.
In the following months, the group carried out a wave of coordinated bomb and gun attacks in several cities across the north of the country that resulted in hundreds of deaths. As well as government buildings, churches and mosques have been targeted in a deliberate attempt to provoke sectarian hate.
Some of these attacks are not claimed by any group. At the end of 2011, in what appeared to be a particularly heinous bid to inflame tensions, a series of bomb attacks were carried out at churches on Christmas Day across Nigeria causing many casualties and outrage.
After the latest atrocity at the college in Mubi last week, former US ambassador to Nigeria John Campbell wrote: “It is not clear to me why the levels of violence have spiked periodically since Christmas 2011.” Campbell reiterated the significant observation: “The Mubi atrocity will feed a popular perception that the government can no longer ensure security in large parts of the country.”
A major part of that insecurity is the growing violence between Muslim and Christian communities. In June, earlier this year, at least 92 people were killed in clashes between Muslims and Christians in the northern city of Kaduna, which were sparked by suicide bombings of churches on three consecutive Sundays.
Nigeria’s national composition is roughly 50:50 between Muslims and Christians. But this division follows a North-South pattern, with the latter mainly populated by Christians. Southern Nigeria is also where the country’s oil wealth is located, in the Niger Delta area. The danger is that the escalation of bloodshed in recent years is leading to the fragmentation of country.
Boko Haram espouses the creation of a Northern Muslim state along the lines of an ancient caliphate before the British amalgamated the territory in 1903. And, owing to animosity over sectarian violence, many Christians in the South of the country would only be too glad to part company with their Northern Muslim counterparts.
However, the fragmentation of Nigeria would undermine the political base of the central government. Nigeria’s political class has an unenviable reputation for institutionalized corruption and graft. Those flaws would most probably intensify in splintered and weakened political administrations. In that scenario, the powerful Western oil companies stand to gain by extracting even more favorable terms for oil production.
Nigeria is Africa’s top oil producer, pumping some two million barrels of crude per day. That is comparable to about 60 per cent of Iran’s daily output and a quarter of Saudi Arabia’s. Nigeria has also vast reserves of natural gas, the biggest in Sub-Saharan Africa, some 17 times greater than those of the second biggest source, Angola.
According to the US Energy Information Administration, Nigeria’s oil output will increase by 50 per cent over the coming years as result of investment in new fields by oil giants Chevron, ExxonMobil, Shell and Total. Of these firms, Shell is the oldest operator in Nigeria beginning in 1936. During the years of insurgency in the Niger Delta by the Ogoni people, Shell reportedly colluded with death squads to quash that insurrection.
Most of Nigeria’s oil output – some 40 per cent of its exports – is destined for the United States. Indeed, Nigeria has become the fourth major oil supplier to the US behind Canada, Saudi Arabia and Mexico.
Despite oil export earnings of around $45 billion a year and more than five decades as a major producer, Nigeria remains one of the poorest countries on earth. More than 70 per cent of the population subsist on less than $1.25 a day.
The importance of Nigeria as an oil supplier to the US is set to grow as new facilities come on stream over the next five years. This mirrors the growing importance of West Africa in general as a new oil-producing region, with recent discoveries in Ghana and Niger and offshore fields in the Gulf of Guinea.
It is in this context that recent political violence raging across Nigeria is perhaps best understood. America’s top military officer for Africa, General Carter Ham told Associated Press in August 2011: “What is most worrying at present is, at least in my view, a clearly stated intent by Boko Haram and by al-Qaeda in the Maghreb to coordinate and synchronise their efforts.” He added that this would be “the most dangerous thing to happen” to US interests in Africa.
Notably, the US has stepped up military liaison with Nigeria over the past two years, with the despatch of American Special Forces and training in counter-terrorism.
Political analyst Olufemi Ijebuode is convinced that Britain, France and Israel have also stepped up covert military involvement in Nigeria over the same period. He says that it is significant that the hotbed of Boko Haram activity is in the northeast of the country near the border with the three Francophone former colonies of Niger, Chad and Cameroon. “These countries are known to have strong presence of French Special Forces. There is no way that given the surveillance of these covert forces that the activities of Boko Haram would go undetected.”
The rapid militarization of Boko Haram with advanced ordnance and techniques, plus the notorious corruption among Nigeria’s military, its involvement in violations and extrajudicial killings, has created the suspicion that foreign powers are colluding with this shadowy network to foment political violence and instability in Nigeria. It would not be the first time that Western powers contrive a security concern over supposed terrorists in order to implement an ulterior geopolitical agenda, as has been seen in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The same Western objective of fracturing, balkanising and weakening countries is also seen to be playing out in Sudan, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia and Syria. Nigeria’s oil and gas riches and its position as a natural leader of African nations underscores the Western objective with regard to West Africa.