Nigeria: The Pot Boils

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September 2, 2007: The military occupation of Port Harcourt, the largest city in the Niger Delta, has reduced the amount of street crime. But out in the marshlands, the oil theft goes on. In the last year, the government has lost over $4 billion in revenues because of the interrupted oil operations, and theft of oil from punctured pipelines. The oil thieves pocketed over a hundred million dollars last year, by selling the oil to other gangs that smuggled it to nearby countries and sold it. There are several major gangs (out of hundreds of oil stealing crews) that took in millions of dollars each last year, and these are the ones the army wants to bring down. But these larger gangs have powerful backers among local businessmen and government officials. The gangs pay bribes to the bureaucrats, and do the dirty work for anyone who can afford to pay. You can't survive in the Delta without your own, heavily armed, muscle. The gangs provide these services, or demonstrate to the unprotected, why such security measures are absolutely necessary.

The corruption is also hurting the gangs and rebel groups. Everyone is for sale, and the tribal rebels are the most common victims. The government and oil companies are always offering tribal rebels special deals, in return for "cooperation." The sold out followers do not take it kindly when they find out. Leaders have to spend a lot of time reassuring their followers that there has not been a sellout. Even so, most criminal bosses are hard to buy. Power is a heady drug, and in Nigeria, the "Robin Hood" type of gangster or corrupt politician is fondly remembered. That's a form of incentive for the bad guys, to be remembered, not as a crook, but as a generous benefactor to the poor and downtrodden. However, more Nigerians are coming to realize that the crooks are stealing from the poor (by plundering oil revenue and government assets), and not the rich. Getting a little of that money back in the form of well publicized handouts is no benefit.

At the very top, Nigerians realize the current system isn't working. The government is trying to clean up the corruption and get officials (elected and appointed) to perform efficiently. To that end, civil servants are getting raises (to discourage corruption), more efforts are made to prosecute crooked politicians, and more suspicious behavior is being punished. That's apparently the reason for the string of military commanders who have been replaced in the Delta. Few have been accused of corruption, apparently because senior commanders are simply yanking brigade and battalion commanders if there's a wiff of corruption, or a sustained lack of performance. The government is also reorganizing, officially to make it more efficient, but also making it easier to detect corruption. Making government operations "auditor friendly" has some deterrent effect on officials tempted to steal. There are a lot of officials in this category, as well as many completely honest ones. But the thieves comprise a large minority, and their numbers have to be substantially reduced before all that oil money can be put to good use.

The situation in the Niger River delta region, where most of the oil is, has gotten so bad that Nigerian and foreign businesses are leaving the area, or holding off on expansion plans. The criminal gangs (including rogue soldiers and cops being bandits on the side) have been forced from the daytime streets by all the additional cops and soldiers. But the bad guys are still there, more discrete, but just as vicious and heavily armed as ever.

 

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