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Nigeria and the Muslim Brotherhood

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by Douglas Farah
Published on March 10th, 2006
ARTICLES

Rising political instability fueled by billions of dollars in oil theft, coupled with growing religious tensions across much of the country have pushed Nigeria to brink of chaos and collapse. Such a collapse would cause oil prices to soar—Nigeria produces 2.5 million barrels a day--and plunge an already-unstable region further into disarray. A recent National Intelligence Council (NIC) conference report on "Mapping Sub-Saharan Africa’s Future" listed the "outright collapse of Nigeria" as the primary threat to the continent.[1]

The internal situation is further exacerbated by four factors: The ongoing recruitment, by both Saudi-funded Salafist Sunni groups and Iranian-backed radical Shi’ite groups, of Islamic youth for training abroad; the spread of Salafist teachings and the imposition of sharia law across more than one third of the country; the growing economic and physical presence of leaders of the international Muslim Brotherhood, including some who are designated terrorist financiers by the United States and the United Nations; and the presence in Calabar of former Liberian dictator Charles Taylor, who continues to use his extensive financial resources and military contacts to threaten the government of president Obasanjo and maintain destabilizing non-state armed groups in Liberia, Cote d’Ivoire and possible Sierra Leone.

These factors, co-existing in a nation with a vast and easily-marketed resource, endemic corruption, deep religious divides with a history of turning violent, weak institutions, little democratic tradition and the free flow of weapons and transnational criminal organizations, make the long-term prospects of Nigeria’s stability questionable at best.  While many of the problems have existed for years, all have been exacerbated in the past year and are likely to continue to grow more critical. The central government has demonstrated no capacity and little will to make significant headway in any of the critical areas.

The NIC conference report that currently "Nigeria’s are locked in a bad marriage that all dislike but dare not leave…If Nigeria were to become a failed state, it could drag down a large part of the West African region…Further, a failed Nigeria probably could not be reconstituted for many years—if ever—and not without massive international assistance."[2]

As dire as these scenarios are, the NIC report and other assessments significantly underestimate several factors. There is little in indicate a direct relationship between increasingly militant Islamic movements there and the more aggressive, violent groups now extending their control across parts of the oil-producing Niger Delta in the south. However, the long-term instability of the nation have created conditions similar to that of Charles Taylor in Liberia, where Russian, Israeli and South African organized crime groups operated along side Hezbollah and al Qaeda operatives, each using the other’s networks and resources when necessary, while not sharing ideology or religious affinity.[3]

In Nigeria the situation is more complex and the stakes higher. A recently-commissioned private intelligence report for Nigerian president Obasanjo estimated that the amount of oil "illegally bunkered" by criminal groups in Nigeria at up to 300,000 barrels a day.[4]   Bunkering is a term used to describe the filling of a ship with oil. Much of the illegally-bunkered oil is sold at steep discounts to North Korea, China, and others. With the price of petroleum rising sharply, profits from this activity have skyrocketed and the activity has become more organized and centralized. If oil is sold at half the market rate of $60 a barrel, this would generate about $9 million a day, or $63 million a week, or $3.2 billion a year.

This money is spread throughout the bureaucracy and financial bunkering systems developed by former dictator Sani Abacha, insuring the military and senior government officials are co-opted into the lucrative web of corruption and that serious reforms will be impossible to enact.

The most visible consequence of the rising illicit profits in the Niger Delta is the emergence of new, well-structured, hierarchical militias with a broad array of new, sophisticated weapons.[5] These groups have engaged in a spiraling series of attacks against oil companies and the kidnapping of foreign oil workers. Estimates of the number of small arms in circulation in Nigeria range from 1 million to 3 million.[6]

"The endemic corruption and abject poverty in the Niger Delta provides an environment that favors criminal activity including small arms dealing, money laundering, and large-scale oil theft that will continue the social disintegration of the Delta if left unchecked," the intelligence report states. "These factors provide funding, weapons and militia needed to precipitate and sustain conflict, as well as undermine society’s ability to prevent or recover from conflict."

While the violence is growing in the southern region, it is much more difficult to track developments in the Muslim-dominated north. What is clear is that salafist groups have greatly intensified their efforts to recruit and indoctrinate young men there. This is an entirely foreseeable development because, in his statement broadcast Feb. 11, 2003 Osama bin Laden listed Nigeria among the six nations (along with Jordon, Morocco, Pakistan, Yemen and Saudi Arabia) most qualified for "liberation" from unjust and renegade rulers, through jihad. However, this statement has been widely ignored in intelligence and analytical work on Nigeria. Earlier this month the central government accused the northern, Muslim state of Kano of creating parallel security apparatus and of collaborating with foreign powers to train 100 Muslim militants in intelligence gathering and the "practice of jihad."[7] This is not the first time radical Islamist groups have emerged. In late 2004 a group calling itself the "Taliban" launched a short-lived armed jihad in Kano state in order to create an Islamic state. The revolt was put down by federal troops.

There is another little-noticed development in Nigeria relating to the spread of salafist  teachings. It is the emergence of the presence of the international Muslim Brotherhood, through a series of large investments, primarily handled by Idriss Nasreddin, who has an extensive financial network and business holdings there. The primary company is Nasco Investment & Property Ltd., owned by Amana Holdings, an offshore company registered in Panama.[8]

Despite being designated as a terrorist financier by the United Nations in 2002, obliging all states to freeze his assets, Nasco continues to produce corn flakes and potato chips, and Nasreddin continues to visit his offices in Plateau State regularly.

While Nasreddin and Nasco have been active in Nigeria for several years, intelligence sources say his old partner Yousef Nada as also opened a series of shell companies in the past year in Nigeria and Muslim Brotherhood money is also flowing in from other sources.

The Brotherhood has traditionally been a conduit for money flowing to radical groups, ranging from Hamas to Palestinian Islamic Jihad and al Qaeda. Its expanding infrastructure in Nigeria bodes ill for the central government and others seeking to stem the spread of sharia law and radical Islamic influence.

The challenges facing Nigeria are daunting, and so far there is little indication of political will by the Obasanjo government to tackle the most serious problems. Given that the instability arising from the tenuous reforms Obasanjo has attempted to enact, most regional powers and influential international actors have chosen not to press Obasanjo to do more for fear it would end the badly-flawed democratic process.

This is a valid consideration. Given the depth of the corruption in both civil society and the military, even if Obasanjo himself  were completely removed from the corrupt structures, he would face long odds in enacting serious reforms.

However, delaying dealing with the multiple and intersecting crises will give time for those receiving the extensive resources of bunkering and other criminal activities to strengthen their positions. Already militias from the Niger Delta have sent mercenary forces into Equatorial Guinea to overthrow the government there and supplied weapons to armed groups in Cameroon and elsewhere. This destabilization of the Gulf of Guinea, which is expected to supply up to 20 percent of U.S. petroleum needs in 10 years, and more than 30 percent of its natural gas imports, has serious implications for the outside world. These groups are natural allies of Taylor, who has strong ties to the Nigerian military and regional weapons dealers. Extraditing Taylor to stand trial before the Special Court for Sierra Leone, where he is indicted on 17 counts of crimes against humanity, would be a small step toward cutting the flow of weapons into the region.

But while the Niger Delta crisis is more visible and perhaps poses more of a short-term threat, it is not aimed at dismembering Nigeria as a nation state. However, the growing Islamic radicalism in the north is pushing precisely for the establishment of truly separate, autonomous Muslim enclave, and there is open talk of establishing a separate state. While such a state would arguably be destined for economic failure, a strong autonomous region would provide militant Islamists with a safe haven in the heart of Western Africa, able to tap into the growing salafist movements in Mali, Chad, Mauritania and Niger.

There are no good options in holding Nigeria together and no leader with the demonstrated capacity to do so. Looming presidential elections will only exacerbate the already-high tensions and the scramble for resources. Yet its failure would be catastrophic.

You can read Douglas Farah, Senior Fellow at IASC and author of Blood From Stones, at his blog (www.douglasfarah.com).


[1] Conference Summary, "Mapping Sub-Saharan Africa’s Future," National Intelligence Council, January 2005, p. 16.

[2] Ibid.

[3] For a full discussion of these relationships see Douglas Farah, Blood From Stones: The Secret Financial Network of Terror, Broadway, New York, 2004.

[4] Confidential Report, "Illegal Oil Bunkering in the Niger Delta," in possession of author.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] "Nigerian Authorities Accuse Kano of Using ‘Foreign Help to Train Jihadists,’" AFP World Service, Feb. 9, 2006.

[8] Lisa Myers, "Alleged Terrorist Financier Operates in Plain Sight," NBC, June 30, 2005.

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