RAY SUAREZ: Early this year, for the first time in 15 years, Nigerians chose their president, and nearly 30 million citizens cast ballots that ended 16 years of military rule in the West African nation.
Nigeria, about twice the size of California, was once on the road to becoming a wealthy nation. It's one of the world's top oil producers. 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 poverty.
During military rule, political repression in Nigeria drew intense criticism. And the 1995 hanging of poet and human rights crusader Ken Siro- Wiwa and several others brought international pressure to penalize Nigeria.
International bodies voted to sanction the country, but were largely ineffective. But after the death of General Sani Abacha, the country's military rulers agreed to an election. The winner was a former military ruler, General Olusegun Obasanjo, now in traditional garb instead of army green. Obasanjo served as president in the late 70's.
He voluntarily relinquished power in 1979 to a civilian government that was later overthrown by the military. Obasanjo spent three years in prison for criticizing military rule. Despite allegations of vote fraud, international monitors called the elections fair. The mood was festive when Obasanjo came forward to greet the nation.
OLUSEGUN OBASANJO: The people of Nigeria have made their choice. I am humbled by the fact that I, Olusegun Obasanjo, am that choice.
RAY SUAREZ: During his campaign, Obasanjo promised that his government would fight the corruption that made millionaires out of military cronies, and makes his country frightening to investors. President Clinton after yesterday's talks with the new Nigerian leader, backed up his call for increased aid, and some forgiveness of Nigeria's crushing debt.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: President Obasanjo's election in May has signaled a new day for Nigeria, and a new hope for Africa. It is very much in America's interests that Nigeria succeed, and therefore we should assist them in their success.
We intend to increase our assistance to Nigeria, to expand law enforcement cooperation and to work toward an agreement to stimulate trade and investment between us. We intend to do what we can to help Nigeria recover assets plundered by the previous regime. But we must do more to realize the promise of this moment for Nigeria and for Africa.
RAY SUAREZ: President Obasanjo says, if he doesn't pass power to an elected civilian after his term, he will have failed. During an interview this morning he stressed his country's progress and America's interests in Africa's success.
RAY SUAREZ: In recent speeches you've talked about Nigeria as being a potentially great country. Certainly it's always been a potentially rich country. President Clinton yesterday talked about relieving some of the debt burden of heavily indebted countries. But oil prices are low right now. How can you sort of get the engine of the economy going?
PRESIDENT OLUSEGUN OBASANJO: Well, President Clinton got it right when he said that taking the economic and social indicators as they are today, Nigeria is potentially a rich country but as of today is a poor country. If you like, you may even say it's not that poor a country because the riches are there in its human resources. And natural resources are good -- but it is an impoverished country.
As long as Nigeria has to be at the bottom of the excessive debt that hangs over its head now, so long will it not be able to come out or to actualize its potential. So what we are saying is that for Nigeria to actualize it's potential it needs a lifeline, and the lifeline is to help us out of its bottom of pit.
RAY SUAREZ: One of the popular slogans here in Washington when you talk about Africa is "trade, not aid." Doesn't Nigeria need both?
PRESIDENT OLUSEGUN OBASANJO: Fact, Africa needs both. Before you can trade, you have to be in a position to prepare what you, the ware that will you trade in; and to prepare the ware that will you trade in, you need to be helped -- and that is the initial aid -- to be helped in a position of skill, to be helped in education, to be helped even in the simple thing of how do you package what you want to trade in, the product, how is it packaged? Where do you look for market? How do you advertise?
All these will need to learn and in learning those -- what I call the nuts and bolts -- you need assistance. That's where the aid comes before trade; but yes, trade not aid. But I will say a little bit of aid, which will then assist -- a little bit of aid, which will then assist trade.
RAY SUAREZ: Nigerian troops have been in several countries in West Africa in recent years; the region has had many troubles. As we watch your country move into a new era trying to solve some of it's own problems internally, could we expect that Nigeria will look inward and be less involved in its region?
PRESIDENT OLUSEGUN OBASANJO: No, we won't look inward. I believe that we have a responsibility beyond our borders for peace and stability in our sub-region, indeed, in our region, and that's the reason why we must be strong internally -- politically stable - strong-- and economically vibrant and buoyant.
RAY SUAREZ: Mr. President, in recent decades Americans have become quite used to bad news - a steady stream of bad news from Africa. But there's much bright news, too: Two big democracies, Nigeria and South Africa, new on the horizon; big regional powers in their parts of the continent. How does that change what happens in the other countries that are neighbors of you both?
PRESIDENT OLUSEGUN OBASANJO: Well, bad news. I think I will not want America to be ignored so that they expect that there can be no good news from any part of the world. In fact, America must make effort to ensure that good news comes from all parts of the world as much as possible.
But having said that, the situation in South Africa and Nigeria must give great hope to the two countries, citizens of the two countries, and to Africans generally, and to the world in particular.
RAY SUAREZ: Now that there is an elected government in your country, are you more able to reach out to other parts of the continent, to be welcome in other places around the world, than perhaps General Abacha had been and his government?
PRESIDENT OLUSEGUN OBASANJO: Naturally. The international community stood firm and supported Nigerians through a turning to fight against tyranny and of oppression of military differences with Abacha. And when that struggle was successfully reached, the international community became more receptive to the new dispensation and the new leadership in Nigeria.
And we are grateful to them for that and we are grateful to God, and we are grateful to our own citizens who, out of sheer determination, stood firm and said, "no," and no matter what it cost them. And it cost some of our compatriots their lives. It cost some of us our freedom. It cost some other form of deprivation. But in the end, the Nigerians won.
RAY SUAREZ: When you yourself were in jail, many of your country men and women were killed, many people are poor. It must be difficult to ask for patience when people have done without for a long time. They know that even though they have no electricity, in many places, running water, that ten or twenty miles away there are people with laptop computers and Mercedes Benzes. How do you keep them on the road and looking forward to the future?
PRESIDENT OLUSEGUN OBASANJO: Now, there is really nothing like hope. When people have hope, they have almost, they can have anything, and they can wait for anything. It's when there is no hope that you are frustrated out of this world. What has happened in Nigeria today is that the expectations are high.
People who have been deprived, people who have been suppressed, they now have these freedoms. They breathe new fresh air and they are seeing things that are happening, and they can wait.
If five months ago if you had to queue for twenty-four hours at the petrol station to get fuel, and today we don't have to do that -- we can drive in and drive out - that is the feeling that is pervading the air in Nigeria today, the feeling of high expectation and hope that -- not futile expectation and hope, but expectation that can see result, and therefore is fruitful expectation.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, Mr. President, I want to thank you for giving us some of your time today.
PRESIDENT OLUSEGUN OBASANJO: Thank you very much.