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Nigeria’s Multifaceted Problems Challenge U.S. Policy

SOURCE: AP/George Osodi

Locals collect "water" from an oil-polluted stream in Oshie near Port Harcourt, Nigeria.

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The gulf oil disaster has attracted the world’s attention, but many smaller yet similar spills occur on a daily basis around the world.

Nigeria, for example, is the fourth largest supplier of U.S. crude oil and has oil spills nearly every week. More than 7,000 oil spills took place off Nigerian shores between 1970 and 2000. And The New York Times recently reported that, “The Niger Delta, where the wealth underground is out of all proportion with the poverty on the surface, has endured the equivalent of the Exxon Valdez spill every year for 50 years by some estimates.”

The hazardous consequences of frequent spills have reached the Nigerian people, but oil profits have not. Corruption and mismanagement swallow roughly 40 percent of Nigeria’s $20 billion annual oil income according to former Nigeria anticorruption chief Nuhu Ribadu.

This situation is made even more perilous given the Niger Delta population’s dependence on the environment. Fishing and agriculture are the two traditional occupations in the Delta. The United Nations estimates that this tradition continues, and agriculture, forestry, and fishing still account for more than 40 percent of the region’s employment, yet “all three economic industries have declined since the ascendancy of the oil industry.”

This loss of key revenue is a partial cause of the insurgency in the Niger Delta, which has been ongoing since the 1990s when local groups began to fight back against oil companies that they believed were exploiting them. The Delta conflict is compounded by unrest and religious tension in the north. A five-day uprising last year resulted in the deaths of more than 700 people in Borno State. And more than 800 people have been killed since January in Jos, a major city in central Nigeria, as religious tensions peaked over land disputes.

Demographic developments are exacerbating environmental degradation and conflict in Nigeria. The country is home to more than 15 percent of the entire African population, and the median age is just 19 years. The Niger Delta population is set to more than double in 30 years, reaching over 45 million people by 2020. The rapidly growing population poses a significant threat to everyday livelihoods in the region.

Climate change impacts are particularly severe given Nigeria’s urgent need for development, and the fact that agriculture is still the dominant employment sector. Climate change is already impacting Nigeria in significant ways. Desertification is driving farmers and herders south from the Sahel and into cities as roughly 1,350 square miles of Nigerian land turns to desert each year. Agriculture makes up 40 percent of Nigeria’s GDP and 75 percent of employment, and has shrunk since the petroleum industry boom in the 1980s. And the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has identified Lagos, Nigeria’s capital, as one of West Africa’s megacities to be at risk from sea-level rise by 2015.

Lake Chad, which marks Nigeria’s northwest border, has been reduced to one-twentieth its size in the 1960s due to a drier climate and overgrazing. Director General of Nigeria’s National Space Research and Development Agency Dr. Seidu Mohammed said this has harmed about 25 million people by disrupting livelihoods such as farming and fishing. It is scenarios like these that lead the United Nations to estimate that 200 million people will be mobilized as climate migrants worldwide due to global warming.

These substantial problems threaten to tear apart Africa’s most populous nation. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson said at a September 2009 keynote at the Center for American Progress that, “Nigeria is without a doubt for the United States and probably for Africa the most important country on the sub-Saharan portion of the continent.”

It is not by chance that the U.S. foreign policy community is paying attention to Nigeria. The country is a test case for addressing complex situations that will increasingly define the way the United States conceptualizes, funds, and runs its foreign policy in the decades to come. Environmental degradation, human mobility, and climate change are factors in multifaceted threat scenarios that challenge the current institutional setup of U.S. aid, diplomatic, and security policies.

The United States and Nigeria launched a new Binational Commission in April 2010. The agreement looks to help forge a greater partnership in improving governance and transparency in Nigeria, with a focus on the Niger Delta. It also looks to increase Nigeria’s food security and agricultural development.

Nigeria is just one example of a country facing increasingly complex challenges. It is important the United States take such scenarios into account as it redefines and strengthens the relationships between its development, diplomatic, and defense institutions. The Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review and Presidential Study Directive, or PSD, have great potential to revamp the way the United States addresses the complexities of state stability in countries such as Nigeria.

One key takeaway from a look at Nigeria is the impact of multifaceted and transnational challenges on national politics: In this case, changing climate patterns are driving people into cities while placing its capital increasingly at risk to rising sea levels. Thus the review processes should stress the need for regional and comprehensive approaches to such complex crises. The problems of the 21st century cannot be addressed with the tools of the Cold War era.

Additionally, as developing countries continue to open up and democratize the United States must reevaluate the way it does business. A person-to person approach to world politics will become increasingly important as the state becomes less powerful. The traditional troika of defense, diplomacy, and development must rethink its model to address this reality.

Andrew Sweet is a Research Associate and Michael Werz is a Senior Fellow at American Progress.

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