Explaining Today’s Oil Conflict

Within the rich body of literature that explains the onset, duration, and intensity of conflicts, some scholars have also examined the causal mechanisms linking natural resource abundance with war and levels of violence. According to Paul Collier, mineral wealth both creates and prolongs conflicts (2007). Massive oil rents are used in various ways to finance violence and to foster a predatory political economy. In the worst instances, major actors’ sources of income actually depend on the perpetuation of violence or vice versa, e.g. Niger Delta insurgents. Even in the best cases, where oil rents appear to be successful in propping up some form of centralized authority, rents tend over time to exacerbate state weakness, risking state failure.

There are three prominent accounts for why oil creates conflicts. They are all correct and that they constitute a rent-seeking cycle. In the first, the rentier state’s weak institutions allow for poor governance with an inability to avoid both intra- and inter-state conflicts. This is exemplified by Nigeria’s border disputes with Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea as well as the ongoing North-South divide, the emergence of terrorist groups such as Boko Haram, and the Delta violence. The second explanation, geopolitical and quite straight-forward, is that control of oil has meant immense economic and political power throughout the 20th century.  This includes the idea that oil companies are likely to fund either overthrows or dictatorships if it is in their best business interest to do so. Highly dependent on the import of Nigerian petroleum, the Clinton administration was criticized for its ancillary relationship with the repressive military regime of Sani Abacha in the 1990s. Third, when rent can be earned from even nominal control of a government, with no political skills required, then there is great incentive for groups to try to secede, e.g. Biafran War in Nigeria, or for non-state actors to try to capture the state, e.g. MPLA’s 1977 attempted coup in oil-rich Angola. Collier and Hoeffler and Fearon and Laitin agree that the tenuous nature of petroleum control coupled with the immense potential gains is a recipe for attempts at overthrowing mineral-rich governments (2000; 2003).  Jeremy Weinstein argues that in resource-rich environments, the lure of short-term opportunities to “consume” tends to crowd out and erode the commitment to investing in long-term goals that will benefit a whole community (2007). Although it is difficult to identify which of these explanations is most salient, they can all be seen to some degree in the case of Nigeria.

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