Nigeria holds nearly a fifth of the entire population of sub-Saharan Africa. By 2050, it’s expected to pass Indonesia, Brazil, and Bangladesh and take its place among the top five most populous countries in the world, according to UN estimates. But a litany of outstanding and new development, security, and environmental issues – both in the long-troubled Niger Delta in the south and the newly inflamed north – present a real threat to one of West Africa’s most critical countries.
“I have never worked in an area as bereft as the Niger Delta – it is shockingly undeveloped,” said former Wilson Center fellow Deirdre Lapin, in a phone interview with ECSP (listen to the audio embedded above for the full interview). Lapin worked in community development for Shell in Nigeria from 1997-2003 and also spent time at USAID and UNICEF. “Compared to everywhere else I have been, it is without question the most neglected and the least advanced in terms of general development and welfare for the ordinary person,” she said.
The environmental situation in the delta improved as production plateaued, but due to oil theft, poor maintenance, and derelict equipment and pipelines scattered across the delta, spills continue. According to The New York Times, by some estimates, the delta has endured the equivalent of an Exxon Valdez spill every year, for the last 50 years. But there has never been an impartial, empirically based environmental study of the impact of the oil and gas industry on the delta, Lapin said, which would be an important step forward. (A UNEP study is currently underway but has already been criticized for alleged inaccuracy.)
Southern Nigeria’s infamous duality – miserable lack of infrastructure, services, and security in the midst of abundant natural resources – helped give rise to the term “resource curse” among development specialists, a term which has since been applied to similar situations in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sierra Leone, and even Afghanistan. Lapin pointed out that in the eastern part of the delta, the resource curse actually goes back 400 years, to the slave trade and palm oil.
“Blood Oil” and Scarcity in the Delta
The sophisticated insurgency in the delta began as a response to the oil and gas industry, but has in many ways become dependent on it. Groups of armed “boys” – some of whom are remnants of political-intimidation efforts during the 2003 elections – have become notorious in the delta and abroad, often putting on shows for the media. Some of these groups are loosely organized under the moniker MEND (Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta), with the stated intent of driving the oil companies out of the delta in response to environmental destruction and lack of revenue sharing, but others simply profit through extortion, racketeering, and oil theft (also known as “bunkering”). At the peak of their activities, insurgent activity has cut oil production between 25 and 35 percent, Lapin said, prompting oil companies to move further and further off-shore in recent years.
With unemployment in the delta at 90 percent by some estimates, militancy has become a viable way of life for many. Bunkering can net up to $60 million a day, according to a BBC report. The practice, which former president Umaru Yar’Adua called Nigeria’s “blood oil,” costs the government up to $5 billion annually, and many gangs are rumored to have political connections that protect them in exchange for their services.
Contributing to the delta’s propensity for conflict is the region’s demography.
“What is truly needed in order to put Nigeria on a solid footing for the future is a government with very clear objectives for the economic and social development of the country, putting those forward as the priorities, changing the style in which governance is taking place today,” Lapin said. “And that will require something of a revolution, a major sea-change.”
Part two on Nigeria’s future – The Sahel – addresses conflict, scarcity, and demographics in the northern part of the country and concludes with recommendations for the future.
Sources: BBC, CIA, Energy Information Agency, The Guardian, The New York Times, Population Reference Bureau, Reuters, UN.