- The Washington Times - Friday, June 1, 2007

Last Tuesday’s inauguration of Nigerian President Umaru Yar’Adua to succeed outgoing President Olusegun Obasanjo marked an historic fresh start in Nigerian politics: the first peaceful transfer of power from one civilian administration to another, like Federalist President John Adams passing the presidential torch to his Republican successor, Thomas Jefferson, in 1801. The United States should welcome the new Yar’Adua administration with thicker trade, investment and counterterrorism ties.

I recently visited Nigeria twice and sensed palpable optimism among the people about turning a new page in Nigeria’s oft-troubled history. My personal interest is longstanding since my visits as a youth with my father, the late Ronald H. Brown, former commerce secretary under President Clinton.

President Bush should not stand aloof simply because the balloting in Nigeria’s presidential election witnessed shortcomings not wholly unlike the Florida debacle in 2000. China would exploit any indifference or rejection. The Nigerian president’s landslide margin of victory over his tainted rivals Maj. Gen. Muhammadu Buhari and Vice President Atiku Abubakar demonstrated his election reflected the people’s will, the standard of democratic legitimacy.

Nigeria’s domestic politics has national security implications for the U.S. A politically convulsed Nigeria could open the doors to religious extremism or international terrorism, threaten vital oil supplies and prevent the regional power from playing a constructive peacekeeping role in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Al Qaeda has infiltrated nearby Algeria, Morocco and Tunis. Its eyes have turned to Nigeria because of its vast energy resources. Proven reserves are estimated at 25 billion barrels; natural gas reserves exceed 100 million cubic feet. Its crude oil production averages 2.2 million barrels per day.

Nigeria supplies about 11 percent of aggregate U.S. oil imports, making it the fifth-largest exporter to the U.S. Al Qaeda would relish disrupting Nigeria’s oil production. Oil prices would spike, the energy-dependent U.S. economy would be depressed, and U.S. arch-enemy Iran would be made wealthier and less vulnerable to U.S. sanctions over its nuclear ambitions and meddling in Iraq.

Nigeria has been historically fractured between north, southwest and southeast; between Hausa-Fulani, Yoruba and Igbo; between Muslims and Christians; and, between an array of dialects and customs. The Biafra Civil War (1967-1970) wrenched Nigeria along ethnic and regional lines. Its aftermath begot a delicate sharing of national power between the Hausa-Falani of the north and the Yoruba of the southwest.

President Yar’ Adua — a Muslim who served impeccably as governor of Katsina in the north — is unique in Nigeria because he transcends historic divisions. He is equally if not more embraced by the southwest and southeast as he is in his native region. He is as popular among Christians as he is among Muslims.

Nigeria’s population exceeds 140 million, which dwarfs the figures for its West African neighbors. If Nigeria succumbs to internal strife, its admirable peacekeeping operations would be crippled. Over the last decade, Nigeria has provided the bulk of troops for the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Sierra Leone, for the United Nations Mission in Liberia, and for the African Union Mission in Sudan. Moreover, Nigeria’s economy predominates within the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

Accordingly, the United States must pay close attention to Nigeria for its own national security interests. To paraphrase Lord Palmerston, nations have neither permanent friends nor enemies, but only eternal or perpetual interests which it is their duty to follow. If the Nigerian economy became afflicted with a cold because of the chilling effects on investment occasioned by political instability, peace and prosperity in the fragile ECOWAS region would be jeopardized, and become a promising target for Al Qaeda penetration or recruitment. Nigeria’s vast oil and gas resources would also be targeted.

The United States should support President Yar’Adua because he promises to bring Nigeria to a new unity, the rule of law, democracy and diffusion of economic prosperity.

President Yar’Adua’s unifying signature plank has been the rule of law, which in Nigeria’s past has been frequently honored more in the breach than in the observance through military coups or otherwise. Mr. Yar’Adua’s administration as governor of Katsina was free from corruption or allegations of illegalities. He is a modest and contemplative man who displays no earmarks of cupidity or egomania. He has unreluctantly proclaimed he will obey all judicial decrees, including outstanding cases challenging his own electoral victory. Again, President Yar’Adua thus represents a watershed advance in Nigeria’s rule of law, the lifeblood of democracy, domestic tranquility and economic growth.

Nigeria is beset by perhaps the most unequal distribution of wealth in the world. The Niger Delta is emblematic. Despite its lucrative oil and gas resources, the indigenous population barely subsists. The infrastructure is either ramshackle or nonexistent. A chronic militancy and worrisome violence has arisen. Oil and gas production has been periodically interrupted. President Yar’Adua, however, has pledged in his first 100 days to plan for catalyzing economic and social development in the Niger Delta. This could include contract or employment set-asides for qualified local businesses or employees and job training opportunities.

In sum, President Yar’Adua is the brightest star to emerge in Nigeria’s political constellation in decades. The United States should be cheering. The Bush administration and a Democratic Congress should explore ways to assist Mr. Yar’Adua’s success in his ambitious and enlightened agenda.

Michael A. Brown has twice taken part in U.S. presidential delegations to Africa and is a member of the Constituency for Africa’s board and of the Council on Foreign Relations.

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