- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Last week, for different reasons, both President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair yet again discovered how politics bite back. For Mr. Blair, the bite may prove fatal. For Mr. Bush, it was merely a gentle congressional nip.

In Thursday’s British elections, voters turned on the prime minister over the war against Iraq two years ago. Unlike the United States, where Americans seemed indifferent to or forgiving of the administration’s stand on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction that did not exist and returned Mr. Bush to office last November, a majority of Britons simply did not believe Mr. Blair’s case for war. Indeed, many thought he lied to the nation.

Mr. Blair won an unprecedented third term, the first in Labor’s hundred plus years of existence. However, the voters’ bite was deep. Labor’s 161-seat majority was slashed to 64 and the party received only over a third of the popular vote. With some 30 Labor “backbenchers” opposed to Mr. Blair’s policies and many of his strongest supporters in Parliament defeated, the prime minister’s political standing has been dealt a potentially mortal blow. Gordon Brown, the popular chancellor of the exchequer, could assume Mr. Blair’s post possibly sooner rather than later.

In America, Nigerian President Olusegan Obasanjo’s Washington visit with Mr. Bush last week was perfect background for the House of Representatives’ 421-1 non-binding vote to “urge” the return of former Liberian President Charles Taylor from Nigerian “custody” to a U.N.-backed tribunal in Sierra Leone where Mr. Taylor was indicted on 17 counts of war crimes. Eight senators joined in writing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to call for Mr. Taylor’s return. Congress’ actions rested on allegations by war crimes’ special prosecutor David Crane that Mr. Taylor broke his parole while in Nigerian and plotted an assassination against Guinean President Lansana Conte in January. Nigeria and its president vigorously denied the charge, declaring that Mr. Taylor could not have escaped from his security detail in Calabar where he was under a form of house arrest.

Few Americans pay attention to Africa, the saga of the ousted Liberian warlord and Mr. Bush’s reasons for asking the Nigerian government to grant the deposed leader temporary asylum in order to end the bloodshed in Liberia in 2003. Nor do most Americans know much about Nigeria, a proud democracy with about 140 million citizens (roughly half our population), 40 percent of whom are Muslim. And many Americans do not appreciate that Nigeria provides us with more than 5 percent of our oil and gas and that its energy reserves are huge, meaning that as demand grows worldwide, Nigeria becomes increasingly important.

Nigeria is a complicated case. Despite its democratic values, it is riddled with corruption. For a number of reasons dealing with alleged and real human-rights violations, Congress has imposed sanctions on Nigeria (and others as well) regarding aid and military-to-military cooperation. However, that Mr. Taylor’s return to the special court before the October elections in Liberia could trigger civil war or extreme violence was not noted by the House’s vote or in the senators’ letter. Nigeria has promised to return Mr. Taylor to justice after the Liberian elections on the grounds that an earlier release could reignite conflict.

Certainly, U.S. interests in Nigeria concern oil and natural gas. But failing to engage Nigeria constructively is also unwise. Much of central and southern Africa’s stability is dependent on Nigeria. And, any instability would affect access to newly discovered energy reserves that extend throughout the Gulf of Guinea off Africa’s west coast on either side of the equator, including the creation of new opportunities for jihadist extremists to exploit.

The United States has negotiated and engaged world-class human-rights violators before: The Soviet Union and China headed the list during the Cold War. Nigeria today is not in that universe. In fact, Mr. Obasanjo has made determined efforts to reform Nigeria and strengthen its democracy a tough and long-term battle.

In the 1992 presidential campaign, candidate Bill Clinton condemned China’s rulers as the “butchers of Beijing.” He then went on to have even closer ties with Beijing than did his predecessor and former ambassador to China, the president’s father, George H.W. Bush.

Mr. Blair was savaged by the voters; Mr. Bush was merely nicked by Congress. However, nicks can become septic. In dealing with Nigeria, we should follow the lead of Clinton the president, not the candidate, and engage. The Nigerian government has assured us that Mr. Taylor is under close surveillance and will be returned to justice once Liberia’s elections are held. If that is an empty promise, we can act accordingly. Until then, Mr. Bush’s bold action in engaging Nigeria should be commended and continued. Nigeria is too important for building future African stability as well as a functioning democracy to be left to well-meaning but superficial bites.

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