ABUJA, Nigeria - Africans must ''break the silence'' about AIDS or risk losing hard-fought democratic and economic gains, President Clinton said Sunday as the White House highlighted more than $20 million in U.S. aid to fight AIDS, malaria and other diseases devastating Africa.
''In every country, in any culture, it is difficult, painful, at the very least embarrassing, to talk about the issues involved with AIDS,'' Clinton said after touring a health center in the Nigerian capital and hearing the stories of several people living with the disease.
Clinton's two-day stay in Nigeria was intended to underscore U.S. approval of the 15-month-old democratic government in Africa's most populous nation, with 123 million people.
Along with dealing with the heavy themes of AIDS and debt relief, Clinton used the trip to get to know a country he deliberated bypassed on his last trip to Africa, in 1998, when it was under a military dictatorship.
Led by a throng of singing children, he trudged through the Nigerian village of Ushafa on Sunday, past mud brick huts and flimsy metal sheds, with scrawny chickens scattering in his path.
''We want to help you build your economy, educate your children and build a better life,'' he told villagers, wearing a cream-colored royal African robe given to him by the village chief.
AIDS killed 2.8 million people worldwide last year, and is now the leading cause of death in Africa. The Clinton administration will spend $9.4 million this year for AIDS and HIV infection prevention and care in Nigeria, $8.7 million more for polio eradication and $2 million toward prevention of malaria.
In sub-Saharan Africa, 13 million children have lost a parent to AIDS, and the disease is reducing life expectancies and dimming development hopes across the continent.
''Is it harder to talk about these things than to watch a child die of AIDS?'' Clinton asked. ''We have to break the silence about how this disease spreads and how to prevent it.''
AIDS, which is primarily transmitted sexually in Africa, is entirely preventable, Clinton reminded his audience.
About 2.6 million Nigerians, 5.4 percent of the population, are afflicted with AIDS. That puts the country on better footing than many of its neighbors with higher infection rates, but in danger of letting the disease gain ground, Clinton said.
''AIDS can rob a country of its future,'' Clinton said. ''I know you are not going to let that happen to Nigeria.''
He promised continued U.S. support for Nigeria's transition to democracy, but did not, as Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo had hoped, agree to cancel or cut the nearly $1 billion U.S. portion of Nigeria's $32 billion foreign debt, a move that would require congressional approval.
Speaking to business executives later Sunday, however, Clinton said he supports reducing the debt, but only if Nigeria spends the extra money on improving lives and diversifying the economy.
''There must be a dividend to democracy for the people of Nigeria,'' Clinton said.
Clinton, accompanied by daughter Chelsea, began his day with services at a Baptist church in Abuja, and then ventured outside the capital to get a firsthand look Sunday at both the pageantry and poverty of life in Ushafa, a pottery-making center.
''I came to Nigeria to express the support of the people of the United States,'' Clinton told villagers from a makeshift platform. ''We support your democracy.''
Khairat Abdulrazaq Gwadabe, who represents the village in the Nigerian Senate, said she explained Clinton's visit to villagers ahead of time.
''I had to translate it as the king of the world himself is coming. The president of the world is coming to their chief,'' Gwadabe said.
Villagers said they hoped Clinton's visit would translate into a new school, a factory or some other investment, although they were unclear on how that might happen.
Hajiya Haunwa Mohammad, 42, said if Clinton could help ease Nigeria's debt, she might earn more money selling sugar and other products. Her four daughters, ages 8 to 23, might also go to school, she said.
''Now, my children don't go to school because I have no money for their school fees,'' she said.
Clinton's brief African tour will also take him to Tanzania on Monday. Former South African President Nelson Mandela invited Clinton there to help preside over a planned peace ceremony to end seven years of civil war in neighboring Burundi. Hopes for a cease-fire agreement faded this week and negotiators began work Sunday on a less ambitious pact. Clinton still plans to go out of respect for Mandela's efforts so far, the White House said.
After a few hours in Tanzania, Clinton plans to meet Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo to discuss the status of the Israeli-Palestinian peace peace process.