Clinton seeks to enhance democracy in oil-rich but poor Nigeria

ABUJA, Nigeria - Calling Nigeria ''a pivot point on which all Africa's future turns,'' President Clinton appealed to the leaders of this oil-rich nation Saturday to set aside political acrimony so that their citizens can lift themselves from poverty and isolation.

Standing in the cavernous National Assembly chamber before a wood-paneled wall with gold letters reading ''Unity and Faith, Peace and Progress,'' Clinton praised President Olusegun Obasanjo's leadership in stabilizing Nigeria, and told lawmakers they must develop a better working relationship with Obasanjo if their nation is to surmount ''the wrongs and errors of the past.''

Obasanjo won office last year after death removed Nigeria's dictator, Gen. Sani Abacha, from power and led to a quick turn to democracy. One of Clinton's purposes in coming was to encourage a tender democracy to take root here in Africa's most populous nation.

''The struggle to build democracy depends also on you, on legislators who will be both a check on, and a balance to, executive authority,'' Clinton said. ''Democracy depends upon a political culture that welcomes spirited debate without letting politics become a blood sport.''

The lawmakers, clad in agbada - silky traditional robes of various colors - seemed to take Clinton's words as a message for Obasanjo, who they say has treated them harshly since their body was established last year. They gave Clinton a rousing ovation, then spent the remainder of Clinton's speech either applauding, nodding approvingly or listening intently.

''Our president needs to learn from your president,'' National Assembly member Yahaya Baure Shu'aib said afterward. Another lawmaker, Saibu Hassan, said he feels Obasanjo ''doesn't respect us'' and was glad that Clinton raised the issue.

''I know that decades of misrule and deprivation have made your religious and ethnic divisions deeper,'' Clinton said. ''But that is no reason to let the idea of one united Nigeria slip away. ... The world needs Nigeria to succeed.''

The speaker of the Nigerian house, Ghali Na'abba, said the parliament would try ''genuinely and tenaciously'' to uphold their democracy. ''Your visit will serve as a tonic to strengthen (it),'' Na'abba said.

Clinton and Obasanjo spent much of the day together, from an arrival ceremony at Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport through their meetings at the presidential villa here and a brief news conference afterward.

Later, at a state dinner, Obasanjo gave a lengthy toast welcoming Clinton, his daughter Chelsea and a large U.S. delegation. He called Clinton, ''my friend, a friend of Africa and, indeed, the acknowledged friend of people of African descent, wherever they might be.''

Clinton, in his toast to Obasanjo, assured Nigeria that it would not face its difficulties alone.

''The United States will stand by a nation, any nation, and especially Nigeria, that faces its responsibility as bravely as the people of this nation have in the last few years,'' he said.

''From now on the fates of Nigeria and the United States, economic and otherwise, are tied together.''

The day also featured a few less formal moments: a Nigerian press aide leading dignitaries in singing ''Happy Birthday'' to Clinton, who turned 54 on Aug. 19 - even Obasanjo chimed in - and Clinton forgetting to answer in full a two-part question about Nigerian visas.

''Oh, I'm sorry. Jet lag,'' Clinton said.

The two leaders signed a joint declaration expressing general agreement on alleviating Nigeria's debt burden, and talked at length about unrest in Liberia and Sierra Leone. They discussed ways to step up United Nations peacekeeping efforts in Sierra Leone while dealing with arms trafficking and diamond smuggling through Liberia, said Susan Rice, assistant secretary of state for African affairs.

Saturday's meetings opened Clinton's three-day return to Africa. On Sunday, he plans to visit a village outside of Abuja and address a women's development center before departing for Tanzania, where he will meet Monday with Nelson Mandela, who is trying to broker peace in Burundi.

On his return trip to Washington, Clinton plans to stop in Cairo to meet with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. He told reporters Saturday that he did not have hopes the meeting would yield a Mideast breakthrough, but was meeting Mubarak because it is ''inconceivable'' to pursue peace in the region without Mubarak's support.

''We are working with a sense of urgency, given the timetable the parties have set for themselves,'' Clinton said. ''And we don't underestimate the continuing difficulties, but I'm pleased they're still working.''

Clinton said while he bypassed Nigeria during his initial 1998 tour because it was under the Abacha's autocratic rule, he always hoped to return as president and ''visit a Nigeria worthy of its people's dreams.'' He said Nigeria is progressing toward that goal, calling its current government ''the most important democratic transition in Africa since the fall of apartheid.''

At the same time, Clinton deplored ethnic and religious divisions so severe in this nation of 123 million people that he could not venture far beyond the capital city without risking offending unvisited communities.

''No one should expect that all the damage done over a generation can be undone in a year. Real change demands perseverance and patience,'' Clinton said. ''That does not mean being patient with corruption or injustice, but to give up hope because change comes slowly would only be to hand a victory to those who do not want to change at all.''

While in Nigeria, Clinton plans to announce additional assistance for primary schools and disease prevention, fattening an aid package that has grown from $7 million to $108 million in two years. A $4.3 million aid package is designed to support Nigeria's transition from a military dictatorship to a democracy, U.S. officials said.


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