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Clinton Visits Nigerian Village, Supports Budding Democracy

By Ellen Nakashima

The marketplace in this central Nigerian village, normally bustling with buyers and sellers of local produce, pulsed instead Sunday to Gbaryi tribesman stomping, drummers thumping and women dancing, all to celebrate the visit of President Clinton.

“I came to Nigeria to express the support of the people in the United States,” Clinton told the crowd of several hundred who welcomed him here. “We support your democracy. We want to help you build your economy, educate your children and build a better life in all the villages of this country.”

The presence of “a very great man, leader of the whole world” in this hamlet of mud huts and mango trees is momentous, said Amos Shekogaza, a local politician and businessman. “We feel on top of the hill. There is nothing on earth better than this.”

Clinton’s visit to Nigeria this weekend has significantly boosted the morale of a country whose self-image as a powerful and influential nation on the road to democracy has been undercut by the persistence of poverty, corruption and ethnic and religious conflict. Nigeria returned to a civilian government 15 months ago with the election of Olusegun Obasanjo after 15 years of ruinous military rule.

Clinton brought with him $20 million in new aid, which -- with new peacekeeping contributions announced earlier -- brings U.S. assistance to an annual total of $170 million. Sunday, he also unveiled initiatives designed to expand trade and investment, including duty-free access to the U.S. market for Nigerian products, such as leather and some textiles, and new loan guarantees to help Nigerian importers of U.S. products.

Some analysts said they hope that villagers like Shekogaza do not get their hopes too high because the problems of the village and the country are too deep rooted for the type of aid that has been promised to them.

“What’s being offered is more symbolic than concrete,” said Jean Herskovits, a professor of African history at the State University of New York who recently visited Nigeria. “Fifteen months have gone by, and nobody expects all problems to be solved in 15 months, but Nigerians need now, for the sake of their faith in democracy, some tangible sign that their lives are getting better.

“From what I can tell, the aid offered is not going to produce those kinds of results,” Herskovits noted.

Obasanjo, a retired general, has had scant success so far in dealing with a fractious National Assembly, where several leaders have been impeached for corruption and legislation has been stalled. His style of commanding, rather than conciliating or compromising, has not helped to unify the country of 113 million people with as many as 450 ethnic groups.