TOPICS > Politics

The New Nigeria

August 28, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: For more on President Clinton’s trip to Nigeria, we turn to Walter Carrington, who served as U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria from 1993 until 1997. He’s now a Dubois fellow at Harvard University, writing a book on Nigeria. Mobolaji Aluko, professor of chemical engineering at Howard University and president of the Nigerian Democratic Movement. He was born in Nigeria and holds U.S. and Nigerian citizenship; and Karl Maier, author of the newly released book This House has Fallen: Midnight in Nigeria. For ten years he was the Africa correspondent for The Independent newspaper of London. Ambassador Carrington, what is at stake for the United States in Nigeria? Why are we there?

WALTER CARRINGTON: Well I think President Clinton put it very well when he described what is going on in Nigeria as the most important democratic transition since the fall of apartheid. We know from what happened under the military dictatorship of Sani Abacha what a negative influence Nigeria can have in the region when it did as it did under Abacha inspired or incited military coups among its neighbors. In addition to that, in an era when we are unwilling to send American troops to do peacekeeping in Africa, we are going to rely upon Nigeria to continue the role that it has played as being the major peacekeeper in West Africa. And of course, thirdly, there is the question of oil — Nigeria our fifth largest supplier of oil. Nigeria is the country in which we have the largest investment, over $7 billion worth of investment in the country. And I think all of those reasons make Nigeria important to the United States because it is so important a country in Africa, the largest in terms of population.

GWEN IFILL: How about that, Mr. Aluko? Under the leadership of President Obasanjo, is Nigeria up to the task?

MOBOLAJI ALUKO: Certainly we hope Nigeria is up to the task. I would say that we are very happy that President has gone to Nigeria. There were a number of things… that he did not say when he went there. He did not give us the debt cancellation that we wanted. And also, he did not make some mention about the death of the Chief Abiola and his wife and Ken Sarawewa. And so, those are some things that we still need to talk about.

GWEN IFILL: You lived in Nigeria and you covered Nigeria for a while, Mr. Maier. Do you think Nigeria is up to the task?

KARL MAIER: I think it could be up to the task. I think it’s in the very early days for this government. This government has got very good public relations internationally but domestically, they are not solving the problems. And this government so far has not tackled the key problems. The unrest in the Niger Delta, the issue of the Sharia Islamic law in the North, the unrest in Lagos, and until they do that, trade agreements, new engagement with the international community will not make the difference. They have to put their house in order at home, and I think President Clinton’s visit did not put enough focus on that.

GWEN IFILL: Ambassador Carrington, let’s try to walk through some of these challenges one by one. Mr. Aluko mentioned debt forgiveness and the fact that so many people in Nigeria would like to see foreign nations cancel more than $300 billion in debt. How important do you think that is to Nigeria’s future?

WALTER CARRINGTON: Well, the amount of debt is somewhere between $28 billion and $32 billion. I think the thing that disappointed me, I think most about President Clinton’s discussion of the debt issue is the continuing of conditioning it upon what is called economic reform, which the IMF has used over the years, I think, to disastrous effect in a number of countries. For example, recently, part of the requirements for economic reform was that Nigeria raise the price of its oil — at the pump in Nigeria. It did so, and you got a nationwide strike as a result of it. So I think we have to be very careful in the kinds of conditions that we impose. I think the conditions that are procedural in terms of transparency and honesty are good, but I think we have to leave it to these countries to decide how best they are going to put their own economic house in order. I think that unless there is debt cancellation, we aren’t going to be able to see the Nigerian government have the resources to deal with some of the problems that Mr. Maier talked about.

GWEN IFILL: Thank you for correcting me on the number by the way about the debt. You mentioned twice the issue of oil and Nigeria’s issue of oil. Yet that barely got talked about in this visit that the President made. Was that a mistake?

WALTER CARRINGTON: Well, I think the President in terms of oil was mostly interested in using the, in getting President Obasanjo to use his good offices, among the OPEC nations to get them to raise their output so that the price of oil could come down. Nigeria is already itself producing at its capacity. So it is not a question of Nigeria producing more, but it is a question of Nigeria getting other countries to produce more so that the price of oil for us here in the United States will come down.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Aluko, we hear so frequently one of the major problems in Nigeria is coping with its own internal corruption. Is that a major problem that has to be dealt with before any of this rest of this can be addressed?

MOBOLAJI ALUKO: I don’t think Nigerians are more corrupt or less corrupt as individuals than any other persons in the world. But there is a systemic problem I agree that must be addressed if we’re to have investments. I really believe that the issue of infrastructure, rail, road, electricity, telephones, those are far more fundamental to, in order for us to attract investment. And I believe that when a systemic approach is done in terms of making sure that cash is not carried around the country, schedules, official schedules of pricing, of ways of going through the tenders and so on, I think corruption will reduce in Nigeria.

GWEN IFILL: Corruption a major problem?

KARL MAIER: Extremely big problem, and not just for foreign investment. They talk too much about trying to attract foreign investment. The investment, Nigeria needs Nigerian investment. There is a lot of money around the country. A lot of it is spirited out into Swiss bank accounts or U.S. bank accounts. And that is, it is a corrupt system, like the professor said. And it is going to take a long time to change it. You are not going to do it by passing just legislation. But what worries me about people always saying we’re going to get investment from the West, that will not solve Nigeria’s problem.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Clinton has been to the continent of Africa before — has embraced other new leaders before in poor countries that subsequent of that there have been wars that have broken out. Is Mr. Obasanjo the right person for the United States to embrace now?

KARL MAIER: Well, I think he’s the only person right now because he is the civilian leader of Nigeria, and it is not for the United States to step in and say, let’s find another leader. It must be recognized his election was, let’s just say tainted by a lot of rigging and it was not a very good election. He probably would have won it anyway. They have to deal with President Obasanjo, they know him and he’s the civilian leader. And until there is a change, of course, he’s the man they have to deal with.

GWEN IFILL: How about internal fighting Mr. Aluko within Nigeria among the Christians and the Muslims especially in the North?

MOBOLAJI ALUKO: Well, I think that’s a major problem. I mean, that’s one portion in which the President has clearly fallen flat on his face. I think that he should have addressed the issue of Sharia much more firmly and make it a constitutional issue.

GWEN IFILL: Sharia being Islamic law.

MOBOLAJI ALUKO: Sharia being Islamic law that in the first instance that one state first adopted and now there are eight stops that adopted.

GWEN IFILL: Explain what it is. What is so objectionable about it?

MOBOLAJI ALUKO: Well, I would say that in Nigeria, the Sharia law has been applied in the North, in various ways — but not in terms of the penal code, not in terms of punishment of things that are not in the… not a civil law, not laws…. I mean, Sharia has been applied to situations for only several cases.

GWEN IFILL: Sharia includes cutting off of feet.

MOBOLAJI ALUKO: Exactly. For criminals. It has not been applied prior to now for criminal cases. But, the new implementation of Sharia on criminal cases really violates Nigerian constitution, and, but General Obasanjo or President Obasanjo felt that it would be too volatile for him to address it and he thought that it would just go away. In fact, his term was that it will fizzle out. But eight states are adopting it and that’s a threat on the democracy.

GWEN IFILL: Ambassador Carrington, one major problem on the continent of Nigeria is the issue of AIDS and how one begins to curb the rate of AIDS, Nigeria being the most populous nation on the continent, how important is that to Nigeria’s growth?

WALTER CARRINGTON: Well I think it is very important. I think one of the encouraging things is that President Obasanjo has recognized that AIDS is a problem, and I think the approach in Nigeria is likely to be quite different from that in South Africa. Now, Nigeria, while it has the largest population in Africa still has a rate of AIDS that is relatively low, about 5 percent, and so that if there is intervention now, it is possible to do what was done in places like Senegal to keep the rate low. Otherwise, you’re likely to get the kind of explosion that we’ve seen recently in southern Africa.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Maier, the President goes to Nigeria, and it is significant symbolically, but what’s the best use of the United States’ support for a nation like Nigeria, which has so many other of the same kinds of problems that we’ve been discussing?

KARL MAIER: I think that the US should put a little more focus on civil society, human rights groups. The problem in Nigeria is to build a society back up. The military rule has undermined individual and collective action to make their lives better: Education, health and human rights groups. And I’m a bit worried that the United States is putting too much emphasis on military training, patrol boats for the Niger Delta and even some of the programs. I feel that maybe too much money will go into the pockets of Americans working in Nigeria as opposed to Nigerian groups that can actually do the work.

GWEN IFILL: What’s your answer to that, Mr. Aluko?

MOBOLAJI ALUKO: Well I think that I agree with him. I agree the emphasis on military relations right now is a little bit too much. And I believe that the fact that we run a presidential system that is very similar to the United States, there needs to be a greater interaction between the two nations in terms of civil relationships, and that is why I applaud the fact that President Clinton did address the legislature about that, and talk about the greater emphasis of collaboration between the executive and the legislative. And I also, I just really hope that the issue of debt must be addressed. I really, although we owe the US just under $1 billion, in real terms, it is not more than $150 million when it is discounted. And I think that the United States should make a commitment to have that canceled such that the other nations of the world can also follow suit.

GWEN IFILL: We’ll have to leave it there for tonight. Gentlemen, thank you all very much.