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Clinton Supports, Challenges Nigeria’s New Democracy President Addresses National Assembly on Importance Of Relations, Highlights U.S. Support for New Democracy

By Elizabeth Shogren

ABUJA, Nigeria

Two years after President Clinton excluded Africa’s most populous nation from his historic two-week trek through the continent, he arrived in Nigeria Saturday to acclaim its nascent democracy and challenge its leaders to stay their course to lead all of Africa toward a better future.

Clinton emphatically stressed the importance of relations with Nigeria, the sixth-largest supplier of oil to the United States, and pledged U.S. support for what he called “the most important democratic transition in Africa since the fall of apartheid” in South Africa.

In May 1999, the democratically elected President Olusegun Obasanjo took power and launched the first civilian government after nearly 16 years of military dictatorship.

During much of Nigeria’s 40 years of independence, corrupt leaders had plundered the nation’s riches, leaving its people impoverished and straddled with a massive foreign debt, which now equals about $31 billion.

Clinton also announced that he would ask the Peace Corps to return to Nigeria to assist in improving education, health care and technology infrastructure.

“Nigeria is a pivot point on which all Africa’s future turns,” Clinton told the joint assembly of Nigeria’s two legislative chambers during the first day of a two-day visit.

Clinton spent his day offering praise for the positive steps Nigeria has taken but also entreating its leaders to have patience and diligence because “the whole world has a big stake” in its success.

Nigerians received Clinton with enthusiasm. As he rode into Abuja from the airport, he was cheered by thousands of average Nigerians who lined the road and waved as his entourage passed. The legislature treated him to standing ovations. And Obasanjo had so many nice things to say about the U.S. president that his toast at a state dinner Saturday evening lasted more than 50 minutes.

Clinton focused on how the U.S. government is trying to help the new Nigeria, including urging its major creditors to reschedule its debt if Nigeria abides by its economic and financial reform plans and uses the savings from the debt relief to improve the lives of its citizens. The United States carries only about 4 percent of Nigerian debt.

The Clinton administration has been working with Congress to reward Nigeria in other ways for its progress.

In two years, U.S. assistance to Nigeria skyrocketed from only $7 million per year -- all of that to non-governmental organizations -- to $109 million per year, which goes to an array of programs from AIDS prevention to military assistance.

In addition, President Clinton brought with him $20 million in development and technical assistance, which will help alleviate a range of acute problems from infectious diseases to child labor to an inadequate infrastructure for the country’s vast energy wealth.

“All together, it’s about a $170-million bilateral cooperative relationship, which is quite substantial by global standards,” said Susan E. Rice, assistant secretary of State for African affairs. “Nigeria has only been in a position to be the kind of partner we would hope and like it to be for a little over a year. I think in that year we’ve made a tremendous amount of progress.”

The president hoped that his trip would foster private investment by U.S. companies in Nigeria. A delegation of 60 American businesspeople joined the president in Nigeria, and the Export-Import Bank will guarantee private sector loans in Nigeria worth up to $1.2 billion, Rice said.

Clinton’s visit comes just as U.S. military officials are launching a $42-million program to train Nigerian peacekeepers in regional conflicts such as the brutal civil war in Sierra Leone.

In his speech to the National Assembly, Clinton heralded the key role Nigeria has been playing to foster stability in West Africa.

Nigeria has spent $10 billion and sacrificed hundreds of its soldiers’ lives for peace in its region.

But Nigeria’s transition to a legitimate government has not been smooth. Relations between Obasanjo and the National Assembly have been strained, with some members of the assembly accusing the president of behaving as if the country still had a dictatorship.

Clinton touched this raw nerve in his address, when he praised Obasanjo as a leader who understands that government exists to serve the people and then told the members of the assembly that “the struggle to build democracy depends also on you, on legislators who will be both a check on and a balance to executive authority.”

Sunday, Clinton will travel to the village of Ushafa and later will visit a women’s center to discuss health issues, particularly the problems of infectious diseases such as AIDS.

During his three-day trip to Africa, the president also plans to visit Tanzania to bolster a peace process for war-torn Burundi and plans to stop in Cairo, Egypt, to discuss Middle East peace with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

In Arusha, Tanzania, former South African President Nelson Mandela met with negotiators representing 19 Burundian political groups Saturday, as they continued trying to reach a peace accord to end their civil war.