Oil and Religion: Threats to a New Democracy


By Caroline Riss '03

At first glance, recent political reports from Nigeria look promising: for the first time one civilian leader has taken over from another in a democratic transition. President Umaru Yar’Adua was recently elected, replacing Olusegun Obasanjo who took power in 1999 after nearly three decades of civil war and military dictatorship.

Oil and Religion
Nigerian men play soccer in a village adjacent to an Exxon Mobil gas plant. Oil development has produced jobs, but not for average Nigerians.

In reality this new democracy is narrowly dodging a full-blown civil war. With national and international protests of fraudulent state and federal elections, tensions in Nigeria are elevated. Social unrest is brewing as issues surrounding oil and religion amplify historical divisions between the north and south.

The north-south division dates back to colonial times, when Europeans created boundaries without regard to cultural and ethnic lines. The country’s estimated 140 million inhabitants represent more than 250 ethnic groups and speak 500 languages. The rift has broadened as the government, with the introduction of its ninth constitution, seeks to strengthen federal rule. Challenges to the central authority mount and turmoil is inevitable.

Since the 1970s, Nigeria’s oil industry has been vigorously developed in the southern regions of the Niger Delta. Today Nigeria is the world’s eighth-largest exporter of oil, shipping out 2.5 million barrels daily, which generate over 90 percent of the country’s revenues. These oil riches would seem to be a valuable asset in an otherwise lackluster economy and society, but very few Nigerians actually benefit from the oil revenues. An estimated 70 percent of Nigeria’s oil income disappears into the hands of corrupt officials who, shockingly, have immunity from prosecution.

The inequalities have led to mayhem in the southern regions. Most of the delta’s inhabitants survive on less than a dollar a day and live without power, clean water, or sufficient food. Traditional livelihoods have largely disappeared due to environmental degradation, increased disease, and civil unrest. Nearly 7,000 acknowledged oil spills have led to a collapse of native fishing communities and decimation of the delta’s rich biodiversity. A once self-sufficient agricultural nation now imports more food than it exports. Local militias have grown out of the desperation. Violence has superseded democracy in the south, leaving many in fear of Nigeria’s future.

The northern regions face added economic inequality. With no oil riches or seaports, the north is economically weak, which has led to a power imbalance within the centralized government. Consequently, the predominately Muslim north is relying on religion as a means to gain control over the predominately Christian south. The power play is evident in the introduction of sharia (Islamic) law into the criminal penal code by northern states. This occurred despite resolutions of the 1999 constitution, which held that a state could not adopt any religion as a state religion.

Nonetheless, 12 northern states have enacted sharia law for both civil and criminal matters. The use of sharia law for criminal matters created a phenomenon whereby Christians and Muslims living in the same state receive different punishments for the same crimes. Sharia sentences include amputation of limbs, death by stoning, and long prison terms for crimes of theft, adultery, and defamation of Islam. The ratification of sharia law has created widespread violence throughout Nigeria. From 2000 to 2003 more than 10,000 deaths were attributed to religious clashes. Civil unrest in Nigeria has become as much about faith as economic stability.

Today Nigeria is at a pivotal point in its history. With a new president, immediate leadership is crucial in easing the country’s religious and economic frictions. Nigerian citizens have profound reason for concern. But why should Americans care?

To start, there is more U.S. investment in Nigeria than in any other African country; 2006 bilateral trade totaled $30.8 billion. Nigeria is the fifth-largest source of oil imports for the United States; 40 percent of Nigeria’s oil is exported to the United States. Considering that the United States imports 58 percent of oil used annually, there is a clear dependence on Nigeria. Civil strife in Nigeria reduces oil output: violence led to a 25-percent cut and a loss of $4 billion last year alone in Nigeria’s oil trade.

Apart from economic ties, there are obvious humanitarian concerns. Ironically, American citizens have more influence on Nigeria’s fate than most Nigerians. U.S. governmental ties in Nigeria allow us to demand better for the Nigerian people. Encouraging the U.S. government to seek alternative energy sources and to depend less on foreign fuel could help create more affordable access to fuel for the average Nigerian, likely reducing violence. Further, insisting that all multinational companies working in Nigeria follow a strict code of conduct will assist Nigerians in reducing human rights violations, negative environmental impacts, and widespread corruption. As Hauwa Ibrahim, a Nigerian human rights attorney, once said: “It is our obligation to provide a voice to the voiceless and power to the powerless.” Ultimately, it is the prosperity of the Nigerian people that will dictate the stability of this new democracy.

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  • On February 4, 2009, Oke christianah wrote:
    This article gives vivid discription of the state of economy and religion situation of nigeria