Merchant of Death
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Blood from Stones

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Nigeria on the Edge, Again
With the recent hostage-takings by armed militants in the Niger Delta, the disruption of key oil supplies, and the simmering religious tensions in the north where 17 people have been killed and 30 Christian churches burned, Nigeria is again teetering on the edge of chaos. About 20 percent of Nigeria's oil production has been shut down, sending jitters through the market. More troubling is the fact that there is no end is sight or realistic solution for the current crisis.

Saturday's abduction of nine foreign oil workers, including three Americans, is the latest sign of the growing militancy of the well-armed militias that now control much of the Delta. Many of their stated grievances are legitimate. The international oil companies have left vast swaths of the once-pristine Delta an environmental wasteland. The burning of gas, the oil spills and other pollution have ruined the water, killed the fishing and spoiled the hunting there. The history of abuse and misuse of the oil companies is appalling.

But the real concern of the militias is unlikely to be the legitimate problems. The real interest is in protecting the criminal networks that steal or "bunker" oil before it gets put into the official oil network. While Nigeria officially pumps 2.6 million barrels a day, the real number is more like 3.3 million barrels. Almost 750,000 barrels a day are taken before it enters the production line and sold illegally, generating huge, illicit revenues. Much of the crude is sold to China and North Korea at discounted prices. If the selling price of the stolen oil is $35 a barrel, as it is now, that yields $184 million a week in illicit proceeds, or $9.6 billion a year. If that kind of flow of illicit money does not scare you, then nothing will.

That is why the militias can out-gun the military and carry out their program of disruption and chaos. Much of the illicit money filters back up through the food chain of corrupt and brutal military leaders and their friends, who began the massive bunkering operations under president Abacha. He died of a viagra overdose, but his system keeps ticking like the energizer bunny. Many of the leaders of these criminal organizations are from the north, and would dearly love to do away with even the flimsy form of democracy that now exists

But that is not the only difficulty facing Nigeria. Muslim protests against the Danish cartoons has led to the killing of 17 people and the burning of 30 churches over the weekend in the town of Maiduguri. In an area rife with ethnic and religious unrest, this is a bad omen. The Muslim-Christian violence has flared for decades, but given the new emergence of militant, Salafist Islam and the targetting of norther Nigeria by al Qaeda operatives, it is a possible sign of a long and dangerous road ahead.

It does not help that into this mix, Charles Taylor continues to operate. Given his access to money, weapons and armed groups across West Africa, the picture looks even more complicated that the one Nigeria normally presents.
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