In Nigeria, Clinton Sees a Work in (Slow) Progress

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Americans tend to know two things about Nigeria: Its capital is Lagos, a teeming port city on the Gulf of Guinea, and Lagos' airport is so dangerous that the U.S. government posts signs in American airports warning citizens against traveling there. But both facts are wrong. Lagos hasn't been the capital of Africa's most populous nation since December 12, 1991, when it moved here to Abuja. And last December, with help from the Clinton administration, those signs warning of danger at the Lagos airport came down after the new Nigerian government beefed up security. Direct flights between the two nations resumed last week.

President Clinton spent the final summer weekend of his presidency on a strange sojourn in raw, unfinished Abuja trying to shake other misperceptions about Nigeria. Abuja, like Brasilia and — come to think of it — Washington, D.C., was nothing until the Nigerian government decided a generation ago to move their capital 300 miles inland. The Gwari tribe was forced off its land as the government began constructing its new capital here in the middle of the country. They chose the sparsely-populated region because it isn't dominated by any of the three major tribes, the Hausa, the Yoruba, and the Igbo.

Now, fueled by oil wealth that somehow misses the great bulk of the nation's 120 million people, a bumper crop of construction cranes pierces the Abuja skyline. The capital remains very much a work in progress. Many governmental functions and satellite offices — like the U.S. embassy, for example — remain a 10-hour car ride away in Lagos. The stark poured concrete design of most of Abuja's buildings contrasts sharply with the lush green palm fronds, reddish earth and mud, and huge distinctive outcroppings of coarse black volcanic rock that constitute the capital's older and more natural skyline.

The back streets of Abuja pulse with the sound of traditional Africa juju music, as well as reggae, and the air is spiced with the aroma of curries and goat's-head pepper soups. Unlike most capitals, the city — with a population of 400,000 — has little in the way of fancy restaurants outside of its two big hotels with those exotic-sounding names: Hilton and Sheraton. Like most major capitals, it has a flourishing red-light district.

Clinton sees the nation, west Africa's most powerful, as a fulcrum for democracy and capitalism he hopes will spread across the continent. "Your fight is America's fight and the world's fight," Clinton told the National Assembly in his keynote Saturday speech often punctured by applause. But the trip also seemed to act as a political tonic to a president in the twilight of a tenure marred by scandal: He was joyously serenaded by rapturous singers in a cavernous concrete Baptist church Sunday morning, and hailed by tribal chiefs and little children at a tiny village an hour outside Abuja in the afternoon.

Three of every four Nigerians live in small towns like Ushafa, where roofs are either of tin or brush, and chickens routinely ignored Secret Service instructions to clear a way for the world's most powerful man.

"It is historic to have you here," a slightly overwhelmed Chief Mohammedu Baba, the 14th generation of his family to hold the title, told Clinton. "Nothing like this has happened here!" Clinton delighted in the cream "babun riga" robe the village gave to him, and the "zani" wrapped skirt daughter Chelsea received, and modeled, in the village's crowded market square. The village named him "Danmasani Ushhafa" — meaning the most knowledgeable man in the village (a title not bestowed on Vice President Dan Quayle during his 1991 visit to the same place). "I came to Nigeria to express the support of the people of the United States," Clinton told the crowd, penned in by bamboo fences sunk into fresh concrete. "We want to help you build your economy, educate your children and build a better life in all the villages of the country."

Things are terrible right now across most of Africa, but slightly better in Nigeria, where a fledgling democracy is 15 months old. In the northern part of a country twice the size of California, local Muslim officials, having succeeded in driving local Christians away, are adopting stern Islamic Shariah law to segregate schools, cane drinkers and cut off the hands of thieves.

But there are deep economic problems and ethnic fissures. Nigeria is one of the globe's most diverse states, a point Clinton made repeatedly during his visit. "You have struggled for democracy together. You have forged national institutions together," he told the legislators. "All your greatest achievements have come when you have worked together." Its boundaries, drawn by European colonial rulers, encircle some 260 tribes, many of which have been waging war with each other for generations. When the Igbo tribe in the southeast sought independence in 1967 as the state of Biafra, the resulting war, the most deadly in the history of independent West Africa, killed 1 million people.

For those with long memories, it is about time Nigeria showed some promise. It did in the 1970s — Jimmy Carter was the first president to visit — but a collapse in oil prices and a string of corrupt military dictators, massacres, famines and bloody civil strife held it back. Now that the dictatorship is gone, new plagues — crime, unemployment, AIDS — are hurting the fledgling democracy. But next to the rest of the continent, Nigeria gleams today. Major wars are tearing at Angola, both Congos, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Somalia, and Sudan, while conflicts simmer in Burundi, Chad, Djibouti, Senegal, Sierra Leone, and Uganda. And the United States is eager to school Nigeria's military in the ways of peace-keeping, at least in part to reduce calls on the United States to send troops to keep the peace in conflict-stricken Sierra Leone and other ravaged nations that pockmark Africa. Last week — just in time for Clinton to announce it to a delighted Nigeria — the Pentagon sent the first dozen of hundreds of military trainers to the country. Over the next several months, they will train up to 4,000 Nigerian troops for peacekeeping missions in Africa. Clinton is grateful to Nigeria for taking such a role — one of the darkest days of his presidency occurred in 1993 when 18 American soldiers died trying to arrest an African warlord in Somalia — but, sensitive to the idea of exporting war-fighting skills to Africa, Clinton didn't visit with the newly-arrived U.S. troops during his stay.

Nigeria went all out to prepare for Clinton's visit, sprucing up four major airports in case the president wanted to visit cities outside of the capital. But, amid concerns over security and fears at offending unvisited cities, the White House opted to visit only Abuja. Clinton and his daughter stepped off Air Force One early Saturday and were welcomed by a maelstrom of three tribal groups of whooping, whirling dancers — including a pair of midgets — in native garb, accompanied by pounding drums and the driving lilt of wooden flutes.

Thousands of Nigerians clumped along Airport Road and cheered at their fleeting glance of Clinton. The National Assembly and President Olusegun Obasanjo both gave him rousing ovations. But each leader wants something from the other: Clinton wants Nigeria, an OPEC member and the sixth-largest supplier of oil to the United States, to encourage its fellow cartel members to pump more oil to reduce its price below inflation-inducing $30-a-barrel levels. In exchange, Obasanjo wants Clinton to fight to reduced the crushing $30 billion the nation owes the industrial powers, debt amassed by military autocrats.

But neither man has the power to give such promises: Nigeria is pumping all the oil it can, so it has no power to trim prices beyond exhorting its OPEC colleagues to join in. And since the United States only holds about 4 percent of Nigeria's debt, its ability to reduce the other 96 percent, beyond Clinton's rhetoric, is marginal. While the Nigerian government may know that, the people don't: A recent poll in a Lagos daily paper said 79.6 percent of those responding believe Clinton's visit would result in "huge benefits" — primarily debt relief — to Nigeria. Billboards, posters and T-shirts all urged Clinton to "Cancel Nigeria's Debt Now."

Clinton pledged to urge his allies to reduce Nigeria's debt — so long as it remains on the path to democracy — but his pleas may fall on deaf ears. After all, the White House told hundreds of visiting U.S. business executives and journalists to bring cash — preferably in the form of $100 bills — to avoid having to use their credit cards in scam-rich Nigeria. Foreigners' credit-card receipts often are seen as "legal tender" by unscrupulous Nigerians, who will use numbers plucked from receipts to buy goods for themselves.

The presidential weekend is sort of a pat on the head for Nigeria, which Clinton spurned on his six-nation tour of Africa in March 1998. He simply flew over Nigeria to protest the brutal and corrupt military dictatorship run by Gen. Sani Abacha. Abacha died mysteriously in 1998, and last year Nigerians elected Obasanjo as their president. But Obasanjo, while hailed as the man who has brought a fragile democracy to Nigeria by Clinton and other western leaders, isn't viewed so favorably by his constituents, who continue to live a life of grinding poverty.

One of every three Nigerians lives below an already very low poverty line in a country with vast stores of natural resources. The average per-capita income flits about the $1,000 mark. The CIA paints a grim picture of the country's infrastructure: Its roads are falling apart because of the heavy freight trucks that pound the pavement. Those trucks, the CIA says, are on the highways because of the collapse of Nigeria's railways after years of neglect. U.S. aid to Nigeria has mushroomed from $7 million two years ago — funneled around the government to humanitarian groups — to $108 million today. While that's a sharp rise, it still amounts to less than $1 annually per Nigerian.

All this in the face of rampant corruption and greed. Last year, Nigerian senators spent much of their time gaining access to government coffers to buy furniture for their state-bought private homes. Senators ignored an approved cap of $35,000 and took $50,000 — all of it in cash. The third most-senior member of the government was just impeached for pocketing $350,000 for his furniture — and a $200,000 holiday bonus.

The rot is certainly deep here, but Clinton, ever the man from Hope, prefers to look at how far Nigeria has come instead of how far it has yet to go. "Now at last you have your country back,'' Clinton told the nation, noting that Nigerians are electing their own leaders, tackling corruption, freeing the press and shedding light on human rights violations. "You have beaten such long odds to get this far," he said. "I am certain America will walk with you in the years to come."