Clinton presses Nigeria on Corruption, offers help

The U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton encouraged Nigeria on Wednesday to take a firmer line on corruption and offered U.S. help to implement badly needed electoral reforms in Africa’s biggest energy producer. She also urged the Nations leaders to ease tensions that have led to sectarian violence and disrupted energy production in the Niger Delta. Read

Mismanagement and graft over decades have imperilled Nigeria’s development, deterred investment, undermined democracy and deepened conflicts such as the insurgency in the southern Niger Delta and bouts of religious violence in the north.

In the Nigerian capital of Abuja on the fifth stop in a seven-nation tour Africa, Clinton said that action on those fronts was needed to protect the country’s status as the continent’s largest oil producer and largest recipient of direct U.S. investment.

“We strongly support and encourage the government of Nigeria’s efforts to increase transparency, reduce corruption, provide support for democratic processes in preparation for the 2011 elections,” Clinton said at a news conference with Nigeria’s foreign minister, Ojo Maduekwe.

“We talked specifically how the United States might be able to encourage the electoral reforms,” she said, adding that the two planned a “binational commission” to tackle a range of issues from Niger Delta violence to electoral reforms.

“It is critical for the people of Nigeria, first and foremost, but indeed for the United States that Nigeria succeeds in fulfilling its promise,” she said.

She gave no details.

U.S. officials regard Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, as a bellwether for the continent’s success and have expressed deep concern about the coup-prone country’s political situation, especially after 2007 elections that were marred by fraud.

Foreign Minister Ojo Maduekwe appeared sanguine over Clinton’s mild criticism, which U.S. officials had said would be tougher in private with Washington’s fifth biggest oil supplier.

“We recognize that when we get criticisms, even from our own people, not all those criticisms are intended to annoy or provoke malevolence. Many of them are based on a genuine concern that Nigeria should do better,” Maduekwe said.

Maduekwe added there was a “national consensus on issues of enhanced democracy, a deep commitment to rule of law and electoral reforms” and pledged that President Umaru Yar’Adua‘s government would deliver on reform.

Corruption has been a theme of Clinton’s seven-nation, 11-day trip to Africa, echoing U.S. President Barack Obama when he visited Ghana last month.


She was given an update on a 60-day amnesty period in the Niger Delta, an effort to end years of militant attacks on the oil industry which have prevented Nigeria from pumping much above two thirds of its capacity.

Central Bank Governor Lamido Sanusi said on Tuesday the crisis was costing Nigeria $1 billion a month in lost revenues.

Maduekwe said Nigeria’s president was very optimistic that peace would be restored by the end of the year, adding that oil production levels were already going up. He gave no figures.

“It is improving — just the mere perception that peace is coming back. Amnesty is working, the oil levels are gradually coming up again,” he said.

Clinton said Nigerian defense officials made “very specific” suggestions over how the U.S. military could assist in bringing peace and stability in the Delta.

“We will be following up on those (suggestions). There is nothing that has been decided but we have a very good working relationship between our two militaries,” she added.

President Umaru Yar’Adua took office more than two years ago in Africa’s most populous nation pledging respect for the rule of law but diplomats and analysts say the fight against corruption has faltered under his leadership.

Diplomats in Nigeria, who share concerns about the country’s governance, said they would be watching to see how much of a tough message Clinton was prepared to convey.

But her criticism appeared mild, in line with a wish to push behind the scenes while at the same time improving ties.

In the decade since the end of military rule, elections have been far from exemplary in a country that considers itself the biggest democracy in the black world.

The April 2007 polls that brought Yar’Adua to power were so marred by ballot-stuffing and voter intimidation that observers said they were not credible. A reform bill before parliament is meant to avoid a repeat performance in 2011 polls.

“Nigeria is at something of a political crossroads. Its last elections approximately two years ago were deeply flawed,” said a senior U.S. official traveling with Clinton.

Clinton’s trip to Nigeria comes a month after Obama visited Ghana on his first official Africa trip, seen by some Nigerians as an indictment of their nation’s record on governance.

But Clinton sought to dispel such skepticism, saying Nigeria was a very important trading partner and close friend.

Traditional friends

Nigeria is the fifth largest supplier of oil to the United States and U.S. officials are also troubled by unrest and kidnappings in the Niger Delta, where indigenous groups have complained vehemently about exploitation of oil reserves by foreign petroleum companies.

Violence in the region has led to cuts in production that in June led to Angola surpassing Nigeria in monthly oil production.

To deal with the situation, Yar’Adua has offered militants in the Niger Delta amnesty if they turn in their arms, register and take part in reintegration programs.

Maduekwe said the offer, which took effect earlier this month, was the result of a realization that a new method had to be used to deal with the unrest, which the government had previously tried to quell with military force.

“We clearly understood the need to be bold and imaginative in dealing with that,” he said. “Old methods were not going to be good enough.”

Maduekwe said the week-old amnesty offer had already succeeded in improving oil production levels. “Even the mere perception that peace is coming back, amnesty is working, the oil levels are gradually coming up again.”

Clinton said the amnesty approach was “very promising” and said Washington would look at ways it might be able to assist. She added that she wanted to help ensure that “money from the earth and its riches should be spent on the people” of Nigeria and other African nations.

In addition to the Niger Delta unrest, U.S. officials are concerned by a recent explosion of sectarian violence sparked by the killing of the head of the militant Islamist Boko Haram sect that left more than 700 people dead in the mainly Muslim north.

The emergence of Boko Haram — which is translated as “Western education is sacrilege” and seeks the imposition of strict Islamic Shariah law in secular Nigeria — has led to fears of the spread of Islamist extremism in the country.

Clinton declined to offer an opinion on the government’s actions during the violence that began after sect members attacked a police station and the death in apparent custody of the group’s leader, but said there was “no doubt” that Islamist extremists wanted to expand their influence in Africa.

Maduekwe said Nigerians in general were not susceptible to extremist ideology and attributed the “spasm of violence” to misguided youths with political aims hiding behind religion.

Campaign for good governance

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is taking her campaign for good governance Wednesday to Nigeria, hoping to deepen ties with the African power but also help fight corruption and religious strife.

On a whirlwind trip through Africa, Clinton was holding a day of talks in Abuja, the capital of the continent’s most populous nation, including a meeting with President Umaru Musa Yar?Adua.

Clinton was also due to hold a roundtable discussion with religious leaders in the wake of recent violence, the latest part of US President Barack Obama‘s bid to reach out to the Islamic world.

Clinton’s top Africa advisor said that ties with Nigeria were crucial to the US relationship with the continent due to the country’s vast size and its major oil industry, much of which feeds the US market.

“Nigeria is undoubtedly the most important country in sub-Saharan Africa,” Johnnie Carson, the assistant secretary of state for Africa, told reporters on Clinton’s plane to Abuja from the Democratic Republic of Congo late Tuesday.

Carson said that the United States had a “very good relationship” with Nigeria over recent years and hailed the country’s increasingly active regional profile, including efforts to stabilise Sierra Leone and Liberia.

“Despite our close relationship, Nigeria faces a number of major challenges,” Carson said.

He pointed to attacks on oil facilities in the Niger Delta — which cost the developing country hundreds of thousands of barrels in crude a day — and a flare-up in religious strife in a nation with sub-Saharan Africa’s biggest Muslim population.

Nigerian security forces late last month crushed an uprising by a self-styled Taliban fundamentalist group in several northern states, leaving more than 800 people dead, the majority of them sect members.

The Obama administration has made outreach to the Islamic world a signature US policy, hoping to assuage some of the bitterness among many Muslims over former president George W. Bush‘s policies, particularly in the invasion of Iraq.

Clinton was set to hold a roundtable discussion with religious leaders at the Yar’Adua Centre, named after Shehu Musa Yar’Adua, the late elder brother of the current president and advocate of democratic rule.

A senior US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that Clinton would listen to the religious leaders but that her main message would be on good governance and electoral reform.

“Nigeria is at something of a political crossroads. The last elections were deeply flawed,” the senior US official said.

He said that Clinton would encourage Nigeria to undertake electoral reforms to ensure future polls can move forward without so much controversy.

Clinton will also hold a public forum with representatives of civil society on ways to fight Nigeria’s notorious corruption.

Clinton has made good governance a key issue on her seven-nation trip. Obama in an address in Ghana last month called on Africans to take charge of their futures by standing up against corruption.

Sources: AP, AFP, Agency Reports