Nigeria can blame its recent spate of violence on many things, but the caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper are not one of them. Despite the claims by some Muslims to the contrary, those cartoons were little more than a convenient pretext for carrying on a senseless struggle that has been ongoing for decades.

But the most recent violence, in which Muslims killed Christians and then Christians decided to retaliate by killing Muslims, ought to be one more argument in favor of the United States finding alternatives for fueling its cars. Nigeria is the fifth largest supplier of oil to the United States. And yet the industry often has been used as a weapon for gaining political advantage.

A day after Muslims ran for their lives from the city of Onitsha, masked militants paraded a 68-year-old American hostage in front of reporters and restated their demands for his release, along with the release of eight others, including two more Americans. All of them were working on a barge that was run by a Houston-based oil company.

According to an Associated Press account, the militants said they want a share of the nation's oil profits to help their region of the country. They want money for schools, health clinics and infrastructure. Specifically, they want Shell Oil to pay them $1.5 billion.

More than likely, the talk of schools and health clinics is as much a pretext as were there Danish cartoons. In 2003, Nigeria was ranked second in the world in terms of official corruption by Transparency International. Meanwhile, religious and ethnic violence has killed well over 10,000 people there since 2001.

Nigeria's problems are tragic. They deserve the world's attention. If Iraq is struggling to unite three main rival factions, Nigeria is trying hopelessly to unite 250 or more ethnic groups. The recent violence left more than 100 corpses lying in the streets and underlined the need for mediation and international intervention.

But solving the ethnic and religious divides would be hard enough without the temptations for corruption brought about by the world's dependence on oil.

Without oil profits, the Middle East would be more likely to accept democracy and human rights. Its current leaders would have less leverage and power. And, without oil profits, Nigeria would be better able to confront its many problems.

An aggressive U.S. effort toward alternative fuel sources could lead the way.