TOPICS > Politics

The New Nigeria

August 28, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT


KWAME HOLMAN: With his arrival in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, on Saturday, Mr. Clinton became the first American President to set foot in Africa’s most populous nation since Jimmy Carter visited in 1978. Nigeria deliberately was not on the President’s itinerary when he toured Africa two years ago, a sign of U.S. disapproval of former dictator Sani Abacha. This weekend’s visit was designed to bolster Nigeria’s fragile, 15-month-old democracy, which emerged after Abacha’s death in 1998. The United States supports Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, whose election ended 15 years of military rule.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: After so many years of despair and plunder, your journey has not been easy, but we are also committed to working with the people of Nigeria to help build stronger institutions, improve education, fight disease, crime, and corruption, ease the burden of debt, and promote trade and investment in a way that brings more of the benefits of prosperity to people who have embraced democracy.

KWAME HOLMAN: A former army general who was imprisoned by Abacha, Obasanjo traded his military green for traditional garb and promised to build a civilian-run democracy. Nigeria, about twice the size of California, is one of Africa’s richest nations based on its resources. It’s one of the world’s top oil producers, among the top six oil suppliers to the U.S. But for years, corrupt governments and businesses have been accused of siphoning off much of the wealth. Most of Nigeria’s 110 million people live in squalor and desperate poverty. President Obasanjo has had a difficult time stabilizing his country. Ethnic conflicts in the North have brought periodic clashes between Muslims and Christians, and ethnic minorities in the Niger River Delta are demanding a share of the oil riches.

Two years ago, impoverished locals hacking into a pipeline brought on a devastating explosion that killed at least 700 people in the delta town of Jesse. There have been more pipeline explosions since, killing hundreds more. The Clinton administration says a stable Nigeria is key to stability in the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, especially in the fight against AIDS and the effort bring peace to war-torn Sierra Leone. Last week, national security advisor Samuel Berger announced a team of U.S. soldiers was on its way to train Nigerians as part of a U.N. peacekeeping force.

SAMUEL BERGER: Nigeria has spent $10 billion on peacekeeping in the last ten years. We have an interest in helping Nigeria bear this burden and to do it in a way that helps to build a professional army for Nigeria, not a political army.

KWAME HOLMAN: In his address to the Nigerian assembly this weekend, President Clinton called on Nigerians to continue to show strength and patience as they build their democracy.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: I’m here because your fight — your fight for democracy and human rights, for equity and economic growth, for peace and tolerance — your fight is America’s fight and the world’s fight. You have a chance to build a new Nigeria. We have a chance to build a lasting network of ties between Africa and the United States. I know it will not be easy to walk the road, but you have already endured such stiff challenges. You have beaten such long odds to get this far. And, after all, the road to freedom is the only road worth taking.

KWAME HOLMAN: President Obasanjo said he and Mr. Clinton shared the same goals, and had friendly and fruitful discussions. President Clinton and his daughter, Chelsea, spent yesterday in a small village outside the capital. Thousands turned out to greet them, and Mr. Clinton donned a traditional robe. Today, President Clinton was in Tanzania to lend support to former South African President Nelson Mandela’s efforts to broker a peace deal between warring ethnic groups in Burundi.