Remarks of U.S. Senator Russ Feingold On the “Resource Curse” in Nigeria’s Delta Region

Mr. President, last week I chaired a hearing on the “resource curse” and Africa’s management of its extractive industries. In too many parts of Africa, a wealth of natural resources that should be fueling economic development are instead sources of corruption and conflict. This is especially the case with sub-Saharan Africa’s leading oil-producing nations. Just a few days ago, Transparency International released its corruption index, naming three of Africa’s top oil producers—Chad, Equatorial Guinea and Sudan—among the top ten most corrupt countries. This corruption as well as the discrepancy between persisting poverty and skyrocketing revenues is a recipe for instability in these countries, breeding weak and failing states.

Mr. President, nowhere are the consequences of the “resource curse” more acute or alarming than Nigeria’s Delta region. For the last three decades, local communities there have been marginalized politically and economically as oil companies, with the government’s backing, have seized some of the world’s richest oil deposits. And, while the private sector is pervasive, the federal government is virtually absent – replaced by roving bands of criminals, working in many cases for local governors. The weak infrastructure, lack of opportunities for political participation by local communities, endemic poverty, influx of arms and presence of lootable extractives have turned the Delta into a powder keg over recent years.

In that swamp—and I say “swamp” both literally and metaphorically—have arisen several armed groups that seek to appeal to the legitimate grievances of communities for both political and criminal ends. These groups, many of which claim to be part of a loose coalition called the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, or MEND, have targeted oil companies operating in the region, kidnapping employees for ransom and attacking pipelines and other installations. Simultaneously, they have become heavily involved in the lucrative trade in oil stolen from the Delta’s vast pipelines, which is called “bunkering.” Some estimates suggest that as much as 10% of Nigeria’s current production is siphoned off illegally, creating a shadow economy that undermines the security of the wider Gulf of Guinea region.

The Nigerian government’s response to the Delta crisis—sporadic military campaigns, empty promises of development and half-hearted attempts at political dialogue—has only made matters worse. In many cases there are definite but ambiguous links between the military and the militants – each out for personal gain as the political economy of war perpetuates the illicit nature of these activities. In addition, the military campaigns to date have only served to provoke the insurgency, leading to fighting that has left civilians killed and displaced. Furthermore, the lack of clear distinction between the security forces of the oil companies and the Nigerian military feeds communities’ perception that the two are interchangeable. Meanwhile, despite promises made, there has still not been a serious initiative to address the underdevelopment of the region. The necessary revenues are clearly available with Nigeria’s economic boom, but a lack of political will prevails. This is in part because there are officials at the federal, state and local levels who continue to benefit from the instability in the Delta, either by their involvement in the illegal oil trade or other corruption.
Without a commitment from the top leadership in Nigeria – as well as support from key members in the international community – a growing number of individuals at the top will continue to profit, while those at the bottom have almost no say in the development of their society. Mr. President, genuine peacemaking in the Delta region will require not only legitimate political negotiations but a convincing case for transforming the illicit war economy into one of peace. There will need to be viable institutions, not ones hollowed out from corruption, which can address economic and political decision-making. And there will need to be opportunities for local communities to engage and hold their leaders accountable. Only then will we begin to see change in the Delta.

Mr. President, under this Administration, the United States has made few efforts to address the instability in the Niger Delta, despite Nigeria being a key U.S. partner and the 5th largest source for U.S. oil imports. I recognize that the insecurity in the Delta makes it very hard for our embassy officials—who are doing great work in an already tough posting—to travel there, but without consistent diplomatic outreach and presence in the region, our ability to engage is severely handicapped. How can we be sure the information we’re getting is valid if we don’t have our own eyes and ears to help inform our strategic thinking? The information gap in the Niger Delta is a very real deficit even though it may not seem pressing compared to some of the other national security threats we face. Getting our diplomatic corps into one of the world’s most neglected regions will help us identify the full scope of the area’s problems and come up with a sound plan for addressing them.
In June, I wrote to Secretary Rice, expressing my concern and inquiring about the potential for more frequent diplomatic travel to the region. I understand that along with the security concerns, financial costs also play a role here. But the costs to U.S. long-term security of not directly engaging this problem now are much greater.

The work of our diplomats on the ground though must be backed by high-level support from Washington. On the Niger Delta, or Nigerian affairs in general for that matter, we have not seen adequate leadership from the Secretary of State or the President. Looking to the next Administration, we must re-engage at all levels. This must be a top priority for whoever becomes the next Assistant Secretary for African Affairs, and I will work in my capacity in Congress to ensure we give greater attention to the crisis in the Delta. We must think creatively about how we can rally our international partners and muster the many resources at our disposal to push for a comprehensive solution. In the months and years ahead, I believe there are few more pressing issues in terms of U.S. security and interests in Africa.

Mr. President, now is the moment to engage. Just over a week ago, insurgents in the Delta declared an “oil war,” after accusing the Nigerian military of new and unprovoked attacks. The six days of conflict that ensued between the militants and Nigerian soldiers were the most intense violence the region had seen in years. Reports suggest that oil output was cut by at least 150,000 barrels, but more importantly the violence left hundreds of people killed and many more displaced. I fear that we may only see this situation get worse as all sides, regardless of their rhetoric, cling to military strategies that only further entrench this conflict.

Nevertheless, there is an opportunity here to use this escalation to refocus international attention on this crisis and jumpstart a comprehensive political process to address its underlying causes. In the last month, there have been some positive developments that can be built upon.

First, President Yar’Adua recently announced the creation of 40-person technical committee and an entire ministry for the Niger Delta. If managed well and held accountable, these entities hold the potential to finally deliver on promises for economic development in the Delta, especially infrastructure construction and job creation.

Second, the government has called for the development of a certification scheme to track the theft and lucrative sale of so-called “blood oil.” It is unclear how such a scheme would work or whether the will really exists in Abuja to support it, but this provides an entry point to discuss ways to improve maritime security. A 2005 report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies suggested that better surveillance of two river systems alone could make a huge dent in the illicit oil trade in the Delta.

Third and finally, it should be noted that Nigeria’s ranking improved in this week’s Transparency International’s corruption index, suggesting some progress has been made. Of course, these rankings are not precise and far more progress is needed.

Mr. President, I realize that this situation is very complex and that many talented and thoughtful people have met over the last decade in various conferences, workshops and summits to devise plans for peace in the Delta. I am not under the illusion that stabilizing this region will be easy or straightforward. But I do know that the United States does not currently have the institutional leadership, resources or coordination that we need to effectively engage in that undertaking and wield meaningful leverage. As we look ahead to the next Administration and Congress, this must change not only the sake of African communities caught in the midst of violence and poverty, but also for our own security.