- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 27, 2006

LAGOS, Nigeria — A corruption investigation in Washington has roiled Nigeria, leaving its top two leaders publicly trading accusations and nudging a politically volatile country closer to the brink.

President Olusegun Obasanjo says his estranged vice president is implicated in the bribery case against Rep. William J. Jefferson, Louisiana Democrat. Vice President Atiku Abubakar has responded with damaging charges against the president.

The public feuding in a country where politics often erupts into violence is particularly disturbing for Nigerians, because presidential elections in which Mr. Abubakar is expected to run are just around the corner.

Nigeria is Africa’s leading oil producer and the world’s eighth-biggest exporter, shipping 2.3 million barrels daily. But it’s a country hobbled by a history of official corruption and bloody coups.

With the two leaders locked in a political duel, preparations are not being made for the crucial vote, said Clement Nwankwo, a lawyer and founder of the Constitutional Rights Project, a rights group.

“What we see now is that there are no clear, defined possibilities about where Nigeria is headed,” he said.

Mr. Obasanjo earlier this month forwarded to parliament a report of investigations that the country’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission conducted. The report includes charges that Mr. Abubakar diverted millions of public dollars that ended up as loans to friends and business interests, including IGate Inc., a Louisville, Ky., telecommunications firm that tried to do business in Nigeria in 2004.

Mr. Jefferson has been under investigation in the U.S. since March 2005 on suspicion of using his position to help IGate and seeking bribes in return. The FBI said it found $90,000 stashed in a freezer in his home.

Mr. Jefferson has not been charged and has denied wrongdoing, but he was stripped of his seat on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. His spokeswoman would not comment, and his attorney did not return calls for comment. Representatives of IGate could not be reached.

In Nigeria, Mr. Abubakar has countered the investigative agency’s report with accusations of his own. He said he and Mr. Obasanjo together controlled a bank account that the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission investigators called a conduit for illegal payments.

General elections in April could mark the first successful transition from one elected civilian to another in the country’s 46 years of independence. Military strongmen — including Mr. Obasanjo, who ruled briefly as an army general in the 1970s — held sway for 29 years.

Whoever controls presidential power usually determines who gets the oil wealth in a country with more than 250 ethnic groups, split into a mainly Muslim north and a largely Christian south. For that reason, elections often are fought like wars.

Mr. Obasanjo, a southwestern Christian, is prevented by the constitution from seeking a third term. He has not indicated his choice as successor, but it’s clear he does not want Mr. Abubakar, who has said he will run. Two former military rulers are among more than 20 prominent politicians who have declared interest in running.

Many political leaders from the north have been clamoring for a return of the presidency to their region, which had held power longest. A campaign to amend the constitution and extend Mr. Obasanjo’s stay was defeated in parliament in May, with Mr. Abubakar and fellow Muslim northerners opposing the move.

Mr. Abubakar says his woes stem from his “principled stand” against Mr. Obasanjo’s continued stay in power. Mr. Obasanjo’s office denies the charge.



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