Under the cover of counterterrorism, AFRICOM is beefing up Nigeria’s military to ensure the free flow of oil to the West, and using the country as a proxy against China’s influence on the continent.
Last month, Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari wrote an op-ed in the Financial Times. It might as well have been written by the Pentagon. Buhari promoted Brand Nigeria, auctioning the country’s military services to Western powers, telling readers that Nigeria would lead Africa’s “war on terror” in exchange for foreign infrastructure investment. “Though some believe the war on terror [WOT] winds down with the US departure from Afghanistan,” he says, “the threat it was supposed to address burns fiercely on my continent.”
With Boko Haram and Islamic State operating in and near Nigeria, pushing a WOT narrative is easy. But counterterror means imperial intervention. So, why is the Pentagon really interested in Nigeria, a country with a GDP of around $430 billion – some $300 billion less than the Pentagon’s annual budget – a population with a 40 percent absolute poverty rate, and an infant mortality rate of 74 deaths per 1,000 live births, compared to 5.6 per 1,000 in the US?
A US Naval Postgraduate School doctoral thesis from over a decade ago offers a plausible explanation: the Gulf of Guinea, formed in part by Nigeria’s coastline, “has large deposits of hydrocarbons and other natural resources.” It added: “There is now a stiff international competition among industrialized nations including the United States, some European countries, China, Japan, and India.”
Since then, the US has been quietly transforming Nigeria’s police and military into a neo-colonial force that can support missions led by the US Africa Command (AFRICOM). Buhari’s offer makes US involvement in Nigeria appear as if Nigeria is asking for help, when in fact the stage is already set for AFRICOM.
The Pentagon’s broader aim is to stop China and Russia from gaining a foothold in the continent. In the meantime, it aims to crush any and all opposition groups that disrupt energy supplies so that oil giants can continue exploiting Nigeria’s resources.
A brief history of a complex country
It’s important to get an idea of Nigeria’s ethnic and regional complexities. The country’s 206 million people, nearly half of whom are Muslim and nearly half Christian, live north of the equator in West Africa. Their country has 36 states, seven of which are coastal. The country borders Cameroon in the east, Benin in the west, Chad in the northeast, and Niger in the north and northwest.
A US Strategic Studies Institute report from the mid-‘90s describes Nigeria as “an artificial state created according to colonial exigencies rather than ethnic coherence.” Its fragility explains the country’s susceptibility to ethnic, religious, and class warfare. The majority of Nigerian Muslims are Sunni, but Islam in the country spans the spectrum, from Sufism to Salafism. The Christian population is distributed among the Protestant majority as well as Anglicans, Baptists, Evangelicals, Catholics, Methodists, and Roman Catholics. Most of Nigeria’s Muslims live in the north in 12 states whose laws are based on sharia.
Nigeria boasts hundreds of languages and ethnicities, the largest groups being the Hausa (who make up 30 percent of the population), Yoruba (15.5), Igbo (a.k.a., Ibo 15.2), and Fulani (6 percent). There are, of course, exceptions, but in general the Hausa-Fulani and Kanuri peoples tend to be Muslim and the Igbo, Ijaw, and Ogoni Christian. Islam and Christianity tend to be mixed among the Yoruba. During the late-19th century “Scramble for Africa,” the British colonized the region, Christianizing the south and leaving in place the Islamic political structures in the north both for convenience and as a useful divide and rule technique.
Black gold, British rule
Drawing up “contracts” for energy companies, the Foreign Office (FO) created a monopoly for Anglo-Persian oil (later BP) and particularly for Shell. Prospecting contracts were awarded by the FO in the late-1930s, but it was as late as 1956 that financially viable amounts of black gold were struck. Most of the country’s oil is in the southern, Niger Delta region populated by the Ijaw and Ogoni peoples, hence there is little militant Islam in Nigeria’s illicit oil sector. Shell operations began in Ogoniland in 1958.
Nigeria gained slow and painful independence from Britain in 1960. Seven years later, armed Igbo fought a war of secession in the oil-rich south to try to form their own country, the Republic of Biafra. Under a One Nigeria policy, the British supported the central regime of General Yakubu Gowon during the Biafra War (1967-70). Fighting and blockade led to three million deaths. Biafra failed to secede.
The UK Labour government’s Commonwealth Minister, George Thomas, explained at the time: “The sole immediate British interest in Nigeria is that the Nigerian economy should be brought back to a condition in which our substantial trade and investment in the country can be further developed, and particularly so we can regain access to important oil installations.”
As the British Empire declined, the US gradually pursued the same policy in Nigeria. At first, the US considered supporting Biafra.
The Kennedy administration initiated $170 million in economic and military spending in Nigeria under a plan that continued until 1966, into the Johnson administration. William Haven North, who served as the Director for Central and West African Affairs for the US Agency of International Development (USAID) said: “The issue of supporting Biafra was also tied up with the question of oil interests; the major part of the oil reserves in Nigeria were in the Eastern Region with substantial American oil company investments.” In 1978, the US Navy’s Sixth Fleet began the regular exercises in the Gulf of Guinea that continue to the present.