Nigeria—America’s Oil Quagmire
Nigeria is now America’s fifth leading supplier of oil (after Canada, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela). Long worried about the possibility that political turmoil in the Middle East might diminish the oil flow from Saudi Arabia just as Mexico’s major fields were reaching a state of depletion, American officials have worked hard to increase Nigerian imports. However, most of that country’s oil comes from the troubled Niger Delta region, whose impoverished residents receive few benefits but all of the environmental damage from the oil extraction there. As a result, they have taken up arms in a bid for a greater share of the revenues the Nigerian government collects from the foreign energy companies doing the drilling. Leading this drive is the Movement for the Emancipation for the Niger Delta (MEND), a ragtag guerrilla group that has demonstrated remarkable success in disrupting oil company operations.
The US Department of Energy rates Nigeria’s innate oil-production capacity at about 2.7 mil lion barrels per day. Thanks to insurgent activity in the Delta, however, actual output has fallen significantly below this. Niger Delta “Since December 2005, Nigeria has experienced increased pipeline vandalism, kidnappings, and militant takeovers of oil facilities in the Niger Delta,” the department reported in May 2009. “[K]idnappings of oil workers for ransom are common and security concerns have led some oil services firms to pull out of the country.”
Washington views the insurgency as a threat to America’s “energy security,” and so a reason for aiding the Nigerian military.
“Disruption of supply from Nigeria would represent a major blow to U.S. oil security,” the State Department noted in 2006. In August 2009, on a visit to Nigeria, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton promised even more military aid for oil protection purposes.
Here, then, is scenario No. 2: It’s 2013. The Delta insurgency has only grown, driving Nigeria’s oil output down to a third of its capacity. Global oil demand is substantially higher and rising, while production slips everywhere. Gasoline prices have reached $5 per gallon in the US with no end in sight, and the economy seems headed toward yet another deep recession.
The barely functioning civilian government in Abuja, the capital, is overthrown by a Muslimdominated military junta that promises to impose order and restore the oil flow in the Delta. Some Christian elements of the military promptly defect, joining MEND. Oil facilities across the country are suddenly under attack; oil pipelines are bombed, while foreign oil workers are kidnapped or killed in record numbers. The foreign oil companies running the show begin to shut down operations. Global oil prices go through the roof.
When a dozen American oil workers are executed and a like number held hostage by a newly announced rebel group, the president addresses the nation from the Oval Office, declares that US energy security is at risk, and sends 20,000 Marines and Army troops into the Delta to join the special operations forces already there. Major port facilities are quickly secured, but the American expeditionary force soon finds itself literally in an oil quagmire, an almost unimaginable landscape of oil spills in which they find themselves fighting a set of interlocked insurgencies that show no sign of fading. Casualties rise as they attempt to protect far-flung pipelines in an impenetrable swamp not unlike the Mekong Delta of Vietnam War fame.
Sound implausible? Consider this: In May 2008, the US Army Training and Doctrine Command and the Joint Forces Command conducted a crisis simulation at the US Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., that involved precisely such a scenario, also set in 2013. The simulation, “Unified Quest 2008,” was linked to the formation of the US Africa Command (Africom), the new combat organization established by President Bush in February 2007 to oversee American military operations in Africa. An oil-related crisis in Nigeria, it was suggested, represented one of the more likely scenarios for intervention by US forces assigned to Africom. Although the exercise did not explicitly endorse a military move of this sort, it left little doubt that such a response would be Washington’s only practical choice.