- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 1, 2001

PARIS Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, who is scheduled to meet with President Bush at the White House tomorrow, has called on the world's most powerful nations not to use the current international crisis as an excuse to avoid fully implementing their recent commitments to bolster Africa's economy.

In an exclusive interview during a recent United Nations conference, the leader of Africa's most populous country expressed fears that the Group of Eight leading industrial powers would downgrade the priority they promised at their July summit in Genoa, Italy, for trade, aid and other development support for the continent.

Mr. Obasanjo and South African President Thabo Mbeki put forward concrete proposals, known as the New Africa Initiative to the Group of Eight made up of Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia and the United States.

"My fear is that what is happening today will make them renege from full and total support for that," the Nigerian leader said, referring to the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and the American response in Afghanistan.

Mr. Obasanjo said none of the G-8 countries had indicated they would not meet their African commitments, but he added: "they might shift priority. If the world's priority shifts, then of course you have an excuse for not doing what you have earlier on promised."

The understanding in Genoa involved the industrialized nations providing a raft of measures to shore up Africa's economy and infrastructure. "We are talking trade, debt-relief, and the total of resources available to Africa," Mr. Obasanjo said. Despite the risk of Africa being assigned a lower immediate priority, he indicated that the continent might actually benefit from new thinking amid the crisis.

"I believe also that there is greater awareness that, whatever is being done to bring terrorists to justice, there is also a need for a fairer and more just and equitable world," he said. "That of course is good."

The Nigerian president, a former general, said he also saw benefits for Africa in the strong efforts by the major powers to establish "a very much stronger coalition than before." The implication, he suggested, could make the big powers more concerned about creating stability and avoiding economic, social and political upheavals in Africa.

Mr. Obasanjo said he wants Africans to think pro-actively about how to deal with the dangers now obvious from the threat of worldwide terrorism. A summit meeting to formulate a common African approach to terrorism was held in Dakar, Senegal, last week. Two East African countries experienced terror attacks in 1998 bombings of U.S. Embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania and the overwhelming majority of those killed or injured were Africans.

Meanwhile, the September 11 attacks, and the coalition's military response in Afghanistan, have inflamed religious tensions in Nigeria's majority-Muslim northern states, where state governments have been embracing Islamic Sharia law. An anti-American demonstration by Muslims in the northern Nigerian city of Kano last month erupted into a rampage in which scores of people were slaughtered.

Mr. Obasanjo said his government is having difficulty convincing people in northern Nigeria that the coalition's actions are anti-terrorist rather than directed against Islam. He is a Christian who took office after a democratic election, succeeding a Muslim military ruler with a northern power base.

"What's happening in [northern] Nigeria is that some people do not understand, and they need to be made to understand, that pursuit of those who have committed terrorism is different from fighting Islam," he said.

"Some people mix the two, and anyone who supports terrorism in Nigeria or any other place in the world must need to see a psychiatrist," Mr. Obasanjo remarked.

The Nigerian president, a West African, cited Zimbabwe in southeast Africa as another country affected by the world crisis. There, President Robert Mugabe had been making political capital by backing violent seizures of white-owned farms by black former soldiers and other land-hungry Zimbabweans.

At a recent meeting in Nigeria, Commonwealth foreign ministers appeared to have put in place a solution to the turmoil in Zimbabwe. Britain is to bankroll orderly land reform in exchange for Zimbabwean respect for nonviolent change, civil liberties, democratic processes and the rule of law. However, some Commonwealth countries and international agencies are dubious about Zimbabwe's adherence to these principles.

In the interview, though, Mr. Obasanjo denied that Mr. Mugabe has been dragging his feet or has failed to implement any part of the agreement. "Zimbabwe has not given us any cause whatsoever to say they have not stuck to the deal we have struck," the Nigerian leader said. He characterized Zimbabwe's recent conduct as "minor backsliding, if anything at all," adding that "a little bit of encouragement might correct that backsliding."

Mr. Obasanjo was in Paris to open a United Nations Children's Fund event a sign of Nigeria's return to world respectability. Until 1999, its military regime had been condemned by world leaders for its repression of democracy and other human-rights violations, and had been suspended from the Commonwealth.

Mr. Obasanjo, a former military leader of his country, entered politics and was elected president two years ago, after which Nigeria resumed its place in the Commonwealth. He had already played a significant role in helping South Africa begin its overthrow of apartheid when in 1986 he headed a Commonwealth "eminent persons group" that secretly met with the imprisoned Nelson Mandela and began a confidential dialogue with the white Pretoria regime.

Reviewing progress by Africa in achieving democracy, he said Africa deserves to be applauded for the changes that have come about in recent years. "We have to give ourselves credit," he said. "I think the democratic change has taken hold."

The Nigerian leader said the "decisive step" came in 1999, when the Organization for African Unity resolved in Algiers to exclude any African leader who did not attain power through a democratic process.

"Some people thought that this would not be carried out," Mr. Obasanjo recalled. "Before the end of that year Cote d'Ivoire [Ivory Coast] went military, and the following year we refused to have Cote d'Ivoire sit with us. So the message went out loud and clear … to all Africans that democracy is the way of governance. …

"Africa has now accepted democracy, peace and good governance, fundamental rule of law as basic issues that are not negotiable … This is not a blip, it is a reality," he said.


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