Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo warned yesterday that without significant debt relief, his country's fragile transition to democracy, after years of corrupt military rule, will be jeopardized.
Obasanjo, the first Nigerian president to visit Washington since 1980, met Thursday with President Clinton to ask for debt relief and U.S. aid, including help in training and refurbishing Nigeria's discredited military.
U.S. officials said Obasanjo's visit has helped Africa's most populous nation shed its image as an international pariah that is mired in corruption and unwilling to tackle organized crime.
Clinton, in a joint news conference with Obasanjo on Thursday, was effusive in his praise of the Nigerian leader. During the visit, Obasanjo "was saying all the right things and seems to be trying to do them," a senior administration official said. "It is a very, very different type of relationship than we have had in recent years with Nigeria.".
Nigeria spends between 35 and 40 percent of its national budget to service its $31 billion foreign debt, Obasanjo said in a meeting with Washington Post reporters and editors at Blair House, the official guest residence where he stayed.
Nigeria is a major oil producer, but much of its national wealth has been squandered through corruption. Obasanjo estimated that $4 billion to $5 billion was looted by the government of his predecessor, military ruler Sani Abacha. He said his government is pursuing the money in the United States, Switzerland and other countries.
While Clinton promised to support debt relief, most of Nigeria's debts are to international financial institutions, not individual countries, making the process longer and more complicated.
Obasanjo, 62, took office in June after Abacha died and the military agreed to hold elections. Obasanjo, who also was a general, had ruled Nigeria in the late 1970s and then handed over power to civilians.
Now that he is back in charge, he said, he simply cannot cut his country's health and education budgets to pay off debts amassed by past governments.
"I have to give Nigerians a democracy dividend," Obasanjo said. "I really cannot afford massive debt payment. . . . And the danger is if I don't, if this is not there, a few months down the road Nigerians will be asking, 'If democracy was to improve our quality of life, what do you mean? Where is it?' And if there is nothing in it, democracy will be in danger."
U.S. officials said they are willing to consider limited military assistance to the Obasanjo government, aid that has been virtually cut off for the past 15 years. Obasanjo said the assistance would consist mostly of training, both in the United States and in Nigeria, as well as upgraded transport aircraft and other logistical needs.
Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon said Thursday that the Defense Department "will be working with the Nigerians to come up with a list of their needs and ways we can respond to their needs."
Nigeria has played a major peacekeeping role in West Africa in recent years, sending the bulk of regional troops to help restore peace in neighboring Liberia and Sierra Leone. But some U.S. officials and human rights groups are leery of dealing with an army that still exercises a great deal of political influence in Nigeria as well as in neighboring states.
Obasanjo argued that a strong Nigerian military is necessary to help Africans find solutions to their internal conflicts, and he said the United States should provide the army with training and equipment for peacekeeping operations.
Obasanjo added that arguing against military aid because of past military corruption and misdeeds was "hollow," noting that if one has a car accident, one still rides to the hospital in a vehicle.
"You don't say you can never take a car again," Obasanjo said. "You just make sure to drive more carefully. That is the way it is with the military."