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Richard Dowden: Fuel for the opponents of neo-colonialism

Friday 11 July 2008 00:00 BST

Gordon Brown is clearly worried about world oil prices. The recent increase in supply from the Saudis seems to have been immediately offset by the militant attack on the offshore Bonga oilfield which axed a further 200,000 barrels a day from Nigeria's already-reduced output.

So he may be thinking, "Let's find a military solution". The fundamental flaw in that logic is that the problem is not a military one. While the Nigerian army may lack capacity and probably needs a bit of training, that's not what's at issue here. The problem is a political one.

Everything at present is centred on the banditry in the Delta but it's much more than that, and the roots of it extend much deeper into Nigeria's political system. All the bunkering – or oil theft – is directed by political businessmen who run and own Nigeria. They live in palaces in Abuja and all over the world and they are exceedingly rich and powerful. The stolen oil cash and the money from ransoms goes into the pockets of these Big Men, who control the militias.

The resentment that the oil is being stolen by a few people is not just felt in the Delta. In the north they are furious about it as well because their revenues are being reduced too. It's a country-wide problem. I think the Nigerian government does recognise there is a deeper problem but there just isn't a willingness to accept it, or deal with it.

What needs to be tackled as a first priority is the corruption. Yet the government of President Umaru Yar'Adua has dismantled the anti-corruption body.

The Nigerians are under a lot of political pressure to do something about. It's a big player in the oil markets and they are running way below full capacity. If they could sort out the unrest in the Delta, that would boost supply and the global oil price would come down quite considerably. Until the Nigerian government is prepared to deal with the political ramifications of the problem, I cannot see what Britain can contribute.

And it's unclear what Mr Brown is offering. If the UK says we want to train helicopter pilots or something then fine, but if you're talking about boots on the ground, that would be insane. It would be immoral to try to help the Nigerian army defeat these kids running around with guns, when the people paying them, owning them and controlling them are untouched in palaces in Abuja. Britain's moral voice in the world has been weakened so much with Iraq and it would be obliterated by this. We have already heard the screams of neo-colonialism from Zimbabwe, and it would be catastrophic for Britain's image in Africa if they were seen wading into Nigeria. Quite rightly, they could be accused of making a grab for the oil.

Richard Dowden is director of the Royal African Society

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