Nigeria is one of Africa’s oil-rich nations with an estimated 35 billion barrels of oil reserves. It is also the poster child for the “curse of oil” [see my post More on Oil and Development]. With high oil prices filling the national treasury with petrodollars, one would think that Nigeria would be one of the brightest spots in Africa. It’s not. The picture there is mixed, but insecurity threatens to turn Nigeria’s dream of a better future into a nightmare [“From Boom to Bust in Nigeria,” by Will Connors, Washington Post, 14 September 2008]. Connors’ article is about how corruption, crime, and lack of security have turned the once booming port town of Port Harcourt into a dead zone.
“Uche was the triggerman for his gang of thieves. When gang members stole oil from pipelines or cellphones from passersby, he made sure no one got in their way. Early this year, Uche, who gave only his first name, decided to look for legitimate work. After a few difficult months scraping by, he returned to stealing oil, this time with neighborhood friends. At night, they would travel up one of the hundreds of creeks outside the city to the pipelines, siphon off crude oil, and move it by boat to larger vessels and refineries outside Nigeria. His former gang found out and came looking for him. They broke his fingers, which are still misshapen, and inflicted burns up and down his arms. ‘I’m trying,’ Uche said, tugging uncomfortably at his tattered gray T-shirt. ‘But it’s hard to find work.’ A chance at a better life has long eluded Uche and the many poor residents of this once-booming oil town. But a recent surge in kidnappings and other violence has brought hard times for the entire city, widening the vast gap between the few with access to oil money and the many without.”
Ports have always been magnets for nefarious activity. Think of all the movies that have used dark port scenes as the background for the illicit action of criminals. Port and harbor security have always been concerns, but they have raised their profiles since 9/11. Unfortunately for the residents of Port Harcourt, the Nigerian government has for too long turned a blind eye to the security situation there. The consequences of that neglect are palpable.
“Foreign companies have relocated staff to Lagos, the commercial center, or pulled out of the region completely, and local residents have begun moving to less volatile towns or to their native villages. Merchants and small-business owners have lost customers. ‘Economies do not thrive on fear,’ said Styvn Obodoekwe, a civil rights worker and journalist. ‘Shops that would have stayed open until 8 or 9 o’clock now close by 6, whether they have customers or not. Everyone is rushing home to avoid being attacked or hit by a flying bullet.'”
Fear is the opposite of hope. Ask anyone living in an area where they fear for their life each and every day and they will unanimously tell you that what they want more than anything else is security. You can’t work on development if citizens are huddled inside their homes in fear. In Nigeria, it doesn’t have to be this way.
“Nigeria’s economy is among the fastest-growing in the world, but most people live on less than $1 a day. The poverty, combined with an influx of weapons, has led to rampant crime. Armed gangs kidnap foreigners and wealthy Nigerians for ransom, steal oil, and attack restaurants and clubs. Bystanders are often caught in the crossfire. The gangs say they are fighting on behalf of the poor, but the violence has become about little else other than money and power.”
Crime and corruption can only flourish in darkness. Governments need to operate openly — using transparent decision making and implementation processes. Military and law enforcement organizations need to be effective, but they also need to be monitored and held accountable when their members cross the line. Criminal activity needs to be halted and criminals incarcerated. Nigeria has the resources necessary to develop, but seems to lack the will. What has happened in Port Harcourt is a symptom of much deeper problems.
“Port Harcourt, the hub of Nigeria’s oil-producing Niger River Delta region, was once known for its bustling streets and vibrant night life, fueled by foreign oil workers with ample allowances, and local traders and club owners eager to capitalize on the boon that followed the discovery of oil. As the delta has become more unstable, the amount of crude oil being pumped has dwindled steadily, falling by nearly a quarter since 2006. This year, for the first time, Angola overtook Nigeria as Africa’s biggest oil producer. Many wonder about the future of Nigeria’s oil industry and whether Port Harcourt can recover. ‘The city is already half-dead,’ said Per Stafsen, the manager of the Presidential Hotel. ‘Something has to be done, otherwise the city is completely dead.’ On New Year’s Day, militants attacked the hotel. Sixteen people were killed, and Stafsen was shot in the back. The hotel, which used to be nearly full most nights, now has an average occupancy rate of 15 percent. Joseph Bacha, who is from Lebanon, said his restaurant, the Blue Elephant, has remained open throughout the tumult. He attributes his success to hard work and efforts to improve Nigerian cuisine to attract wealthy locals. ‘That, and for one year and six months I didn’t go outside the gates. Not ever,’ he said.”
The government seems to be in denial about the extent of the security problems — even though the evidence continues to mount that the situation is out of control.
“Government officials concede that the problems damaged the city and region but say order has been restored. The insecurity ‘has really hurt the Niger Delta region, not just Port Harcourt, in so many ways,’ said state information commissioner Nwuke Ogbonna. ‘But we’re going after them. We’re trying to guarantee more security for people wanting to come out at night and enjoy the city. We believe that we are on top of the situation now.’ Residents say fear and suspicion, of militants and the police, pervades Port Harcourt.”
According to local citizens, the police are part of the problem — not part of the solution. They harass normal citizens and even arrest them so that they can demand a bribe to release them. As a result, when the police appear, honest people hide. There is a good chance that criminals have no such fear because they have probably placed much of the police force on their payrolls. Of course, the police deny any hint of corruption.
“Police say they are just doing their job according to the law. ‘We conduct shows of force every Sunday, when we go around and tell citizens they can go about their business,’ said the state police commissioner, Bala Hassan. ‘It’s much better than it used to be. We follow the rule of law religiously. We don’t have problems of human rights violations in Port Harcourt.’ Efforts at long-lasting reform in the delta, such as peace talks and wealth-sharing agreements, have been ineffectual. According to analysts, a large part of the problem is that politicians and military leaders are linked to the region’s instability.”
Connors points out one of the dilemmas that affects Nigeria — people who make a good living as a result of the instability have a vested interest in ensuring that the instability continues.
“‘The federal government contributes 150 million naira [$1.3 million] to the military every month,’ said Elias Courson, a professor at Niger Delta University. ‘So now someone who was sleeping in the military quarters is suddenly in a duplex with free food, people at his beck and call, and you want him to accept peace in the creeks? No, he will create more conflict.’ A Westerner in the oil and gas industry who has lived in Port Harcourt for 20 years said he saw a similar pattern of government abuse. ‘It makes no difference to the people in the government what happens to the city, they’re making money,’ he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to avoid alienating potential clients. ‘They don’t care. They have no interest if this place manages or not.’ The government body established with the sole mandate of improving the delta, the Niger Delta Development Commission, has come under fire for corruption. Its chairman was suspended last month for paying $4 million to a witch doctor to perform rituals against a potential rival. The Rev. Humphrey Nsirim, who travels to the creeks and waterfronts to find boys trying to avoid or escape gang life, said that without work, there is no chance for them to change. ‘They’re not militants; they’re victims of their time and of wicked men who want to use them for their own ends,’ Nsirim said. ‘The challenge is not if they want to change or not, but what to do with them now.'”
It is apparent to any casual observer that Nigeria is currently in a death spiral. If its leaders cannot govern with integrity and control crime and corruption, Nigeria’s legacy will be “the great country that might have been.” Failure to stop the death spiral will result in one of the largest manmade humanitarian disasters in African history since Nigeria is Africa’s most populated nation. I’m not sure whether its too late for Nigeria to pull out of its death spiral, but, as an optimist, I think there’s still hope. Time, however, is not on Nigeria’s side. To allow a small minority of its population to destroy the future of the vast majority of the nation is unconscionable. The nation’s oil revenue must be invested in security and infrastructure. You can’t build infrastructure if you can’t protect it. Infrastructure brings jobs and jobs bring hope. It is time for Nigerian leaders to step up to their responsibilities and become the servants of the people rather than self-serving politicians.