Maryland Weighs Bill for Boycott of Nigeria

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A Maryland bill to boycott Nigeria has thrust Annapolis into an international debate over states' rights in a new world of global trade treaties.

The Nigeria economic-sanctions bill has attracted the attention of players from the State Department to Shell Oil and could expose Maryland to a constitutional challenge from a powerful group of multinational corporations.

"The suggestion that the state of Maryland should be imposing foreign policy is somewhat of a stretch for us," said John Bowers, executive vice president of the Maryland Bankers Association. "This is very clearly delineated. It's a matter for the executive branch and the State Department."

To some people, that's a matter of opinion.

"They are way off base," said Sen. Barbara Hoffman, a co-sponsor of the Nigeria bill. "As a state, we can pass any law we want that affects how our state does business."

Under the bill, the Maryland government wouldn't buy goods or services from any company with direct or indirect interests in Nigeria. That expansive coverage has the potential to affect nearly every business in Maryland - or none at all, depending upon how "indirect interests" is interpreted.

"We have banks that may be doing business with commercial customers that may have relations with other commercial customers in Nigeria," Mr. Bowers said. "It's very hard the way the bill's defined."

With enough pressure, the theory goes, those companies might abandon their investments in Nigeria, which has been accused of human rights violations.

Selective-purchasing laws aren't new. More than 40 states have a "buy American" preference. Others favor local companies or give preference to minority- or woman-owned businesses. And the Maryland bill and others like it are patterned after a South Africa boycott many states adopted during that country's apartheid era.

Back then, however, states didn't have the World Trade Organization (WTO) to contend with. When the United States joined the international trade body earlier this decade, it agreed not to discriminate against foreign companies. State boycotts could violate that agreement.

Because the South African boycotts were so numerous, they are credited with helping to end apartheid. The effectiveness of boycotts of the 1990s remains to be seen, although they have had concrete results. Four major U.S. corporations, including Eastman Kodak and Motorola, have pulled out of Burma since Massachusetts passed a boycott of that Southeast Asian nation in 1996.

Under pressure from the State Department, Maryland lawmakers are sitting on the Nigeria bill for now. That move might quiet the debate in Annapolis, but it won't solve a nettlesome problem that is tearing at the fabric of domestic sovereignty and free speech in cities and states across the country, where selective-purchasing laws are proliferating. …