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Nigeria’s New Democracy Needs US Help

The Boston Globe by J. Brian Atwood The Nigerian leader who visits Boston today embodies the aspirations of Africa’s largest population and arguable of all sub-Saharan Africa. President Olusegun Obasanjo has come to the United States for help in the daunting task of transforming his nation from a corrupt military dictatorship to a market-based democracy. The sad reality is that he will receive little more than a pat on the back, albeit a sincere one that will include a promise of future aid. The United States has a huge stake in this oil-producing nation of 120 million people. If Obasanjo’s experiment with democracy succeeds, America’s investments will be preserved, a new market for our exports will be created, and Nigeria will be an anchor for peace and stability in West and Central Africa. Moreover, Obasanjo’s success will obviate more humanitarian aid and the possible deployment of US military forces. We have much to gain and so much to lose. The expectations of the Nigerian people are running dangerously high, and Obasanjo’s government has little time to deliver. He needs relief from an external debt built up by irresponsible military rulers. His government is spending more to service this debt than it is on health care and education. He also needs foreign assistance to battle the cancerous impact of extreme poverty. Nigeria’s per-capita income is $300 per annum, and poverty threatens everything from ethnic stability to the rain forest to the foreign companies that are extracting millions of dollars of Nigeria’s mineral wealth. Why, then, is the richest nation on earth incapable of stepping forward to help? The debt relief issue involves the arcane rules of the Paris Club and the “highly indebted poorest countries” initiative, both of which will be slow to help Nigeria. It boils down to money. It would cost some $150 million to forgive the bilateral debt Nigeria owes us. President Clinton just vetoed a foreign aid bill that came back from Congress $2 billion under his request. The United States cannot afford not to act to preserve its own interests internationally, to say nothing of exploiting a new opportunity in Africa. Nigeria’s democracy is fragile, and its economy is dead in the water after years of mismanagement. Obasanjo needs help in this vital first year of his transition. I visited Nigeria six weeks ago and heard Obasanjo describe his dilemma. On behalf of Citizens International, a new Citizens Energy Corp. initiative launched by Joseph P. Kennedy II, I promised to encourage the private sector to create a special development fund to help Obasanjo begin work on his priorities: food security, the environment, education, and job creation. We have engaged the Monitor Group, the International Management Development Group, and Harvard’s Center for International Development. We will visit Nigeria in November to identify the specific projects for which we will seek funding. The private-sector response is thus far encouraging. Businesses with large investments in Nigeria, particularly the oil companies, know how important a stable and prosperous democracy is. The private sector, however, cannot replace an international system that is vastly underfunded and slow to move to aid democratic transitions. The world’s only superpower should be a positive force, but instead we have become part of the problem in failing to pay our UN dues and otherwise reducing our contribution to development assistance. Prime Minister Winston Churchill was once in the posture of awaiting vitally needed American aid, just as President Obasanjo is today. Churchill counseled patience and told his countrymen that the Americans “invariably do the right thing after they have examined every other alternative.” Today, just as in Churchill’s time, our Congress seems to be examining the alternative to isolationism. I believe we will get it right eventually. In the meantime, how many opportunities, such as the one presented to us by Olusegun Obasanjo, will we miss? J. Brian Atwood is executive vice president of Citizens Energy Corp. in Boston and was administrator of the US Agency for International Development from 1993 to 1999.

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