- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 23, 2000

President Clinton travels this weekend to oil-rich Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation and a regional superpower that handles the lion's share of peacekeeping in troubled West Africa.

On a trip to Africa in 1998, Mr. Clinton avoided Nigeria so as to register his disapproval of a military dictatorship headed by Sani Abacha.

In contrast, the current two-day presidential journey is intended to show support for the democratic regime that took office in May 1999 and to encourage Nigeria's drive for market-oriented economic growth.

"We had made it clear to Nigeria that it would have to restore civilian rule if relations with the United States were to improve," a White House official said yesterday.

"We monitored the transition from rule by soldiers to rule by civilians, and the United States is now ready to demonstrate its support for what has taken place."

After Nigeria, Mr. Clinton will travel on Monday to Tanzania, where he has been invited by Nelson Mandela to dramatize the importance of the peace process in war-torn Burundi

A peace accord between warring Tutsis and Hutus is being brokered by the former South African president.

Yesterday, at a briefing for foreign journalists and diplomats, the top U.S. officials for Africa, Gayle Smith of the National Security Council and Susan Rice of the State Department, said Mr. Clinton was determined to visit Nigeria before leaving office, given the country's importance and its dramatic transformation.

President Olusegun Obasanjo was elected in February 1999 and restored civilian rule in May 1999.

The Clinton visit is expected to bring some badly needed debt relief and increased U.S. purchases of Nigerian oil.

However human rights and Africa advocates complain the United States has consistently muted its criticism of abuses by African leaders so as not to upset powerful oil interests or lose Nigeria's help in international peacekeeping ventures.

"For too long Clinton administration policy has cynically condemned military rule while pursuing a tacit accomodation of the generals on behalf of U.S. economic and political interests," said Salih Booker, director of the Africa Fund and Africa Policy Information Center, at a panel discussion this week.

Mr. Booker, a former senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, warned of the "increasing militarization of U.S.-Nigerian relations and Washington's official silence on the brutal repression of environmental protesters in the Niger Delta oil fields."

The United States is reportedly training five Nigerian battalions, has pushed training for Nigerian military officers under the International Military Education and Training program and is planning to send Nigeria five fast attack patrol vessels.

"With Obasanjo trying to quell disturbances in the oil fields, one wonders what these boats will be used for," said Michael Fleshman, a panelist at Monday's session and a former human rights coordinator for the Africa Fund.

A Nigerian Embassy spokesman rejected the criticism.

"Those people ignore the huge election victory of our president and his overwhelming popularity in the country," the spokesman said.

Nigeria has taken significant strides toward accommodating the huge ethnic blocs that make up the society: Hausas and Fulani from the north, Yorubas in the south and Ibos in the east who lost the Biafra war of 1967-1970.

This week, Nigerian business leaders in Lagos, the nation's commercial hub, were reported to be hopeful that the American president's visit will improve the country's image abroad, which has been tarnished by continuous charges of corruption and a weak infrastructure that has made investors wary.

"Clinton's visit should demonstrate confidence in the Nigerian economy, confidence in Nigerian democracy, in the return on investment and in the protection of assets," said Ummar Abba Gana, managing director of African Petroleum, a major Nigerian oil-marketing firm, in an interview with Reuters news agency.

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