Trouble in West Africa’s Oil Triangle:

U.S. Energy Security, Violence in the Niger Delta, and the Global War on Terror

Ronnie D. Lipschutz, Paul M. Lubeck and Michael J. Watts

The co-founder of OPEC, Juan Pablo Perez Alfonso of Venezuela, once called oil “the devil’s excrement.” Not only is it black and gooey, it is also “attractive nuisance.” Where there oil is found, there is certain to be trouble. And there is much oil to be found in West Africa’s“Oil Triangle,” centered on the Gulf of Guinea. Over the past decade, an “imperial lobby” of think tankers, military analysts, and Congressional hawkers has fostered a growing American interestin the resources of the Oil Triangle. As a result, West African oil has become the main ingredient in a potent witch’s brew that is certain to generate more trouble. Once the United States withdraws from Iraq and things the Middle East and Persian Gulf go from bad to worse, the Oil Triangle is all too likely to become a new focus for secret intrigue and military deployments. But one need only look at the joint (and supposedly secret) U.S.-Ethiopian intervention in Somalia to see how badly awry such projects can go.

Too Rich or Too Poor?

In these pages, Michael Klare has detailed the increasingly strained geopolitics of global oil supply and demand and the drive by consuming countries to secure access. Oil from West Africa, and especially Nigeria, has proved particularly attractive to the United States. It is much closer to North America that the Persian Gulf, and oil tankers need not go through the Straits of Hormuz, near the Horn of Africa, or around the Cape of Good Hope, all seen by strategists as weak links in America’s “sea lanes of communication” (SLOCs). Much of West Africa’s oil is light and of high quality, and is found in association with natural gas that could be liquefied and shipped across the Atlantic. Moreover,a growing fraction of new production around the Gulf of Guinea is offshore, and more secure than onshore facilities. Finally, the oil-producing countries are almost all weak ones, seeking Western economic aid and military assistance. Currently, the region provides some 15-20% of U.S. imports, a fraction that could go to 25% or more by 2025, depending on what is found and the price of crude.

But already there is trouble in the Oil Triangle, particularly in the Niger Delta of Nigeria. Since the end of 2005, the Delta––the major source of Nigerian oil andgas––has essentially become ungovernable. Political instabilityand violent conflict between local groups, oil and oil-service companies working there and the Nigerian government have escalated, and some,including Chevron, Royal Dutch Shell, Exxon-Mobil, andJulius Berger, feel that their “social license to operate” isnow threatened with revocation. In 2003 and 2004, armed insurgencies andattacks on oil installations cut national oil output by fortypercent. In late 2005, a shadowy groupof insurgents—the Movementfor the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND)—triggered a major escalation in insurgent activity, such that,in the firstthree months of 2006, $1 billion in oil revenues were lost as

national output was cut by one third. Today, some observers believe that more than 10% of Nigerian production—over 250,000 barrels per day—may be “shut in” as result of oil theft and attacks. Although levels of violence and instability are considerably lower in the other oil-producing countries of the Oil Triangle, this may change in the future for, as the proportion of national GDP accounted for by oil increases, economic underdevelopment, state corruption, and political violence grow in equal measure.

In practice, petro-states are “paradoxes of plenty,” enormously wealthy on the one hand (with vast orgies of consumption for a tiny oligarchy), yet marked by poor economic performance, toxic environmental pollution and growing inequality on the other. Most residents of West Africa live on less than two dollars per day; Nigeria’s per capita GDP is no higher today, in constant dollars, than at independence almost 50 years ago. The key phenomenon is what is often called, in shorthand, the “resource curse,” one of the few issues on which the IMF, Jeffrey Sachs, the human rights community, the Catholic Church and millions of poor Africans are in full agreement.

Indeed, in spite of their apparently vast resource wealth, oil-dependent countries represent some of the most sordid, chaotic, socially unjust and inequitable of all political economies (the recent book by John Ghazvinian, Untapped: The Scramble for Africa’s Oil, provides an interesting view of Oil Triangle countries and their politics). They are haunted by the absence of revenue transparency and accountability, distinguishing themselves each year by being ranked lowest in Transparency International’s annual World Corruption Index. But rather than view the “curse” as attributable simplyto venal or greedy officials and businessmen, the dilemma is best explained as arising from the interaction of local social groups and their dynamics with national and transnational interests and incentives produced by the global “oil complex.”

First, vast revenues accumulate in the hands of politicalelites whose practices lack the social discipline normallyassociated with production for a competitive market. Thisfrees the state from the need to rely on taxation which can, in turn, induce taxpayers to make demands on state authoritiesfor transparency, performance standards and meaningfulpolitical representation. Second, opportunities toskim or appropriate revenues are legion in the absence of institutionalized agencies committed to transparencyand fiscal discipline (this is especially the case when a presidentassumes direct personal control of the petroleumministry). Third, the environmental and social costs ofresource extraction are imposed on groups that areunderrepresented or even excluded from power while theresource flows are captured by a political oligarchy skilledat spreading the petro-rents among a network of cronies. In a situation in which noone can explain where the vast petro-revenues go, popular disillusionment causes class, ethnic, religiousand social tensions to turn violent, as each social group makes a claim and a grab for acut of the petro-spoils. Such violence, in turn, appears to threaten the flow of oil to the West, whosegovernments and militaries define petroleum supplies as a “vital interest” to be secured at all costs.

The Imperial Lobby at Work

Although oil has been flowing to the West from the Oil Triangle, and especially Nigeria, for more than 50 years, the region has never been as high priority to Washington as it is today? How did this happen? Out story begins not in the Pentagon or Big Oil but, rather, with a campaign promoted by Paul Michael Wihbey aWashingtonlobbyist and energy “expert” who has tirelessly promotedAmerican military intervention in Africa’s oil-producingstates in order to reduce U.S. dependence on the Persian Gulf. In less than 10 years, with the support of IASPS, Wihbey’s lobbying helped to create an “imperial lobby” dedicated to increased Americanmilitary involvement in and around the Gulf ofGuinea as well as greater American-Nigerian cooperationin managing security in the Niger Delta.

Wihbey wears many hats. Not only is he a “strategic fellow” at Institute for AdvancedStrategic and Political Studies (IASPS), headquarteredin Jerusalem and president a shadowyprivate sector energy consultancy in Washington, the “Global Water and Energy Strategy Team,” he is also a “senior fellow in energystudies” at the American Foreign Policy Council and president of The Center forStrategic Resources Policy, “a non-profit Washingtonpolicy institute.” As long ago as 1998, Wihbey warned that AtlanticEquatorial Africa was “completely disregarded as a regioncontaining vital U.S. interests” and that a “newsecurity architecture is needed to reduce and eliminatecurrent and potential threats to U.S. interests.”Over the following years, he testified to Congress, collaborated on papers with a member of the StateDepartment’s Africa Bureau, and networked with allies across several U.S. governmentagencies, cultivated support from Republicanand Democratic members of the House Subcommitteeon Africa, and recruited U.S. governmentofficials and energy industry executives toparticipate in an IASPS-supported organization,the African Oil Policy Initiative Group (AOPIG). Support for the lobby’s views was given credence whenVice President Cheney’s National Energy Report (May2001) cited West African oil as a valuable resourcefor diversifying America’s rapidly increasing energyimports.More recently, Wihbey has held promotional meetings with boththe president and vice president of Nigeria andwas “lead author” of a report onWest African oil sponsored by the CongressionalBlack Caucus Foundation (CBCF). All of his, and the imperial lobby’s, work has been rewarded by a growing American “footprint” in what Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for African Affairs Theresa Whelan has announced as a “new threat paradigm”—the threat of “ungoverned spaces” —in Northwest and West Africa and the creation of a new African Command, AFRICOM, born out of the increasingly-missionless European Command (EUCOM).

Is Anybody Really Out There? Is Anyone Really at Home?

Building on the foundation laid by Wihbey and the imperial lobby,and in order to increase funding for the U.S. presence in West Africa, strategists at the Pentagon haveinvented a new security threat. “Enhancingregional peace and security,” the U.S. military’s stated objectivefor the regions impoverished and oftenfamine-ridden people may sound a noble ideal in the abstract,like promoting democracy in Iraq, but it obscures and glossesover America’s interest in securing a stake in recent oil discoveries inMauritania, Niger and the ChadBasin. Maya Rockeymoore of TransAfrica Forum argues, for example, that“the United States is creating this [military] build-up underthe guise of counter-terrorism. The reality is they’re protectingthe oil resources from the encroachment of other nationsthat are also interested in the oil, such as China.” Others, such as Hugh Roberts, a highly-respected expert on North Africa with the International Crisis Group, express skepticism about the stated rationale for a U.S. military presence in the area.

But a naked oil-security strategy is too cynical,even for politicians and generals, to defend overtly. Hence,the public relations face put on the dispatch ofU.S. Marines and Special Forces, supposedly to train and advise local armiesto police these vast “ungoverned spaces,” is rationalized bythe claim that it is part of the “Global War on Terrorism” (GWOT). According to the “new security paradigm,” the Sahara and Sahel are vast, vacant spaces, rife with Muslim terrorists, currency smugglers, and criminals actively seeking to undermine the petro-states of Africa and, by extension, the United States. On the map, to be sure, the Sahara and Sahel do look virtuallyunoccupied, with only a scattering of towns and cities separated byhighly-porous national borders. On the ground, however, they arehardly empty or ungoverned. Moreover, while theinhabitants of the region have engaged historically in pastoralism, agriculture, trade,smuggling, and piracy for centuries, and expressed indifferenceor hostility to the laws and rulers living in distant capitalcities, they have nevertheless developed indigenous formsof governance, conflict mediation and law, both tribal andIslamic. None of these practices is connected toterrorism. Caravan routes across the region are thousandsof years old; smuggling is managed bytransnational extended kinship networks, kidnapping for ransomand raiding enemies have histories that long predate theGWOT. The GWOT, however, is premised on the assumptionthat the institutional weaknesses of the region’s post-colonialstates, their lack of legitimacy among their citizens,and the relative absence of effective policing all help to constitute adangerous geopolitical “vacuum” into which terrorists aresure to flow.

To achieve its strategic goal, American military planners have launched the Trans-Sahara Counter Terrorism Initiative (TSCTI) which, it is hoped, will receive $100 million each year from 2008-13. Accordingto EUCOM’s Rear Admiral Hamlin Tallent, the TSCTI is intended

to build indigenous capacity by strengthening regional counter-terrorism capabilities…, enhancing weaponry skills, communications, land navigation, patrolling and medical care… [and] training forces to protect…borders through the detection and elimination of terrorist enclaves [the last term indicating use of active lethal force].

The strategy itself involves a two pronged pincer movement whose main objective is “Ring-Fencing” oil producing countries from the north and south. To the south, the U.S. Navy is rapidly increasing its patrols of the offshore oil fields in the Gulf of Guinea. This is bolstered by an $800,000 American feasibility study of a port and airfield on the island of São Tomé and Príncipe. To the north, American troops funded by the TSCTI are being deployed in training and advising missions designed to monitor and, if necessary, seal northern borders. An intensive search is also on for evidence linking northern Nigerians and other Muslims in the Sahara and Sahelwith international Islamist terrorism.

This last goal is, perhaps, the most troubling. Will the presence of American

troops in Muslim lands provoke Islamic radicalism, as has happened in the Middle East? Worse yet, will counter-terrorism intervention risk reproducing bungled outcome in Somalia where, laments John Prendergast of the International Crisis Group, “U.S. counter-terrorism efforts designed to contain foreignal-Qaeda operatives have accelerated the expansion of jihadi Islamist forces…. [and] misguided U.S. policy has produced the largest potential safe haven for al-Qaeda in Africa.” AsHugh Roberts recently warned: “The idea that you could have major jihadi units holing up there always struck me as implausible…the quickest way to generate a jihadi movement is to send some U.S. soldiers in there to swagger around. The more visible the U.S. military presence, the bigger the target.”

Out, Now!

The strategicimperative driving American energy security interestsin West Africa is increasingly reliant on crude militarypower for policing oil installations and increasingly dependenton joint African-American strategic planning to suppressthreats to production in and exports from the Oil Triangle.As in the Persian Gulf, the imperative to keep the oilflowing to American consumers drives U.S. policy makersto prize stability at all costs, and thus they find it expedient tosupport authoritarian governments in the Oil Triangle. Othersorts of instabilities, insecurity and conflict are also created

in and around the oil complex, which threaten American energy security as well as the possibilities of more democratic governance in the countries of the region. Overlaidon this intricate mosaic are the effects of powerfultransnational forces, in particular the oil companies and theirsecurity forces and the growing military presence of the UnitedStates, France (in Chad) and the United Kingdom as well astransnational religious, ethno-nationalist and criminal networks. In the absence of an alternative strategy, intervention is only too likely to foster more instability, more ethnonationalistreactions and, ultimately, enhance the risk of reproducingthe destabilizing forces of the type now seen in and around the PersianGulf.

There are any number of things that might be done in the Oil Triangle to counter both domestic instability and outsiders’ desire to intervene with military force. Perhaps the most important is to find ways to foster local processes of accumulation and civil society as means of internal stabilization and democratization. No modern democracy has been successful without an active and dynamic middle-class that provides a source of social and political power, a curb on excessive greediness among elites, and support for institutionalized and legitimate decision-making processes. In Iraq, we are learning, once again, that democracy cannot be implanted from the outside; perhaps, in West Africa, we can recognize this and find ways of avoiding another debacle.

Ronnie D. Lipschutz is Professor of Politics and Paul M. Lubeck is Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Michael J. Watts is Class of 1963 Chair in Undergraduate Studies and Chancellor's Professor in Geography and Development Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. This article is drawn from “Convergent Interests: U.S. Energy Security and the ‘Securing’ of Nigerian Democracy” ( a Policy Brief from the Center for International Policy in Washington, DC. This research was supported by funding from the UC Systemwide Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation and the U.S. Institute of Peace.