10 January 2010

Nigeria on the Brink

While the lion's share of media coverage of Nigeria as of late has been focused on the Fruit of the Loom Bomber, the possibility of renewed conflict in the Niger Delta (and the fact that the region's troubles have been keeping about 1/3 of the country's revenues off of global oil markets) is a much more significant threat to regional and international security than terrorism originating from Nigeria. When I wrote my last post on Nigeria in mid-December, the fragile ceasefire between Abuja and MEND, the umbrella organization for Delta militant groups, was growing increasingly precarious and MEND has reportedly attacked a pipeline in the region as a warning to the government.

Well, it hasn't gotten better since then. Yesterday, a Chevron pipeline was attacked by unidentified gunmen in the Delta region. While MEND hasn't claimed responsibility for the raid, the group does say that it sanctioned the attack. These types of attacks on oil industry facilities were occurring with great regularity this past summer during the height of an offensive by the government's Delta Joint Task Force. The attacks had basically halted completely since the ceasefire (accompanied by an amnesty for militants) went into effect around the summer's end.

One of major factors exacerbating tensions here, which I alluded to in the last post but didn't discuss in detail, is the health of President Yar'Adua. To put it succinctly, it isn't really clear whether the president is actually alive and, if he is, whether he is actually well enough to run the country. It seems to be basically common knowledge in Nigeria that Yar'Adua is quite sickly. He has been receiving medical care in Saudi Arabia and hasn't appeared in public for some time now, leading to, as one might expect, all sorts of speculation, including claims that his signature has been forged on official documents.

What does Yar'Adua's health have to do with conflict in the Delta? Many of the recent peace negotiations between the government and militant groups are centered around personal assurances and promises from Yar'Adua. As the uncertainty surrounding Yar'Adua has increased, MEND has become increasingly skeptical of government promises and stepped up its hostility.

Yar'Adua's health predicament also has the potential of creating a national ethno-religious dilemma. Since its transition away from military rule in 1999, Nigeria has alternated between Southern Christian and Northern Muslim presidents (Yar'Adua is a Northern Muslim; the previous president, Obasanjo, was a Southern Christian). Yar'Adua's death would turn the presidency over the VP, the awesomely-named Goodluck Jonathan, and the Northern Muslims would lose much of their "turn" in charge.

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