Britain and Nigeria will be seeking ways to tackle one of the fastest growing criminal rackets in the world, the industrial-scale theft of Nigerian crude oil, when Gordon Brown, Britain’s prime minister, hosts the Nigerian president, Umaru Yar’Adua, in London on Wednesday.
By William Wallis in London and Matthew Green in Lagos
Mr Brown has offered Britain’s help in cracking down on an insurrection in the oil-producing Niger Delta region, where theft and sabotage has shut in about a quarter of Africa’s leading oil producer’s output and contributed to soaring world energy prices.
“These are criminal acts… What we’re looking at is how we can help ensure there is law and order in what is a very dangerous area,” Mr Brown said, in comments ahead of the visit construed in parts of the British and Nigerian media as a precursor to British military assistance.
His offer has received a mixed response in Nigeria. One Nigerian official said that while support from Britain in patrolling international waters offshore could be helpful, any suggestion of British military assistance inside Nigeria would be counter-productive.
Powerful figures in the government and military who are involved in the oil theft could undermine any foreign-backed counter-insurgency strategy by painting it as a threat to Nigerian sovereignty.
Some Nigerian officials and politicians believe that Britain could be of most help if it threw its diplomatic weight behind efforts to curtail the international trade in stolen Nigerian oil.
In an interview with the Financial Times, Patrick Dele Cole, a former international affairs adviser to Olusegun Obasanjo, the former president, says on a bad day more than 500,000 barrels of oil are stolen. An international cartel has emerged, he says, trading the crude in parts of Africa, east Europe and Asia.
“In exchange for the oil there are now arms coming in, and in exchange for these arms insurrection is being fuelled; and so you have a vicious cycle,” Mr Cole says.
A heavyweight politician from the Niger Delta he has gone public with a plan to end the crisis that has caught the attention of policymakers. He proposes a tracking system to halt the trade in stolen oil and the use of recovered proceeds to fund security and development in the delta.
Without a parallel development strategy that shows real commitment to solving a legacy of neglect in the area, he insists, no amount of troops will ease the crisis. Nigeria’s armed forces are themselves compromised by officials profiting from the lucrative trade in stolen oil, he adds, and it may be necessary to hire private security assistance.
Mr Yar’Adua echoed some of the Cole proposals at the G8 summit in Japan last week, when he called for a tracking system for crude oil similar to the Kimberley process set up to curb the trade in diamonds from African war zones.
The Nigerian president is planning to convene a Niger Delta conference bringing together militants, community leaders and government officials in search of solutions to the worsening crisis.
But he is coming under growing pressure to take military action in his own part of the country, the predominately Muslim north, where there is growing alarm at the extent to which the federal government is losing control of the oil-producing region in the south.
The Daily Trust newspaper ran an editorial last month urging the government to “take the kid gloves off” and calling for the army to have helicopter gunships and patrol boats
Members of the Arewa consultative forum, a gathering of northern leaders, have called for tough action to crush the militants.