Will Clinton push Nigeria on corruption?

During her visit today, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is expected to say that stronger relations with the US will depend on better, cleaner governance.

Sunday Alamba/AP
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks to the press during a visit to the Foreign Minister's Residence in Abuja, Nigeria, on Wednesday.

Attracted by its oil, repelled its corruption, most of the West regards Nigeria with a mix of hope and disappointment. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's challenge, in her 36 hours in this West African country, is to find out just how the US can help Nigeria to rescue itself from its self-destructive habits.

Arriving last night for a lightning visit of the commercial port city of Lagos and the country's capital, Abuja – where she plans to meet President Umaru Yar Adua – Mrs. Clinton is expected to drive home the point that stronger relations with the US – and increased foreign investment in Nigeria – will depend on better, cleaner governance, and reforms of Nigeria's abysmal electoral process.

"The US, at least in rhetorical terms, is unhappy about the direction Nigeria is moving in, in terms of electoral reform, and it is also worried about access to energy supplies in Nigeria," says Antony Goldman, an independent risk analyst in London who specializes in Nigeria.

But what Clinton and Western diplomats in general need to realize is that "everyone in Nigeria knows that there should be more accountability," says Mr. Goldman. "The fact that people have been talking about this for nearly 30 years indicates that this is not a simple problem to crack."

The cost of corruption

Former President Olusegun Obasanjo once suggested that corruption costs Nigeria nearly 25 percent of its income, or $148 billion a year. Clearly, Nigeria's vast oil wealth gives criminals (and politicians, and combinations of the two) an incredible incentive to siphon off the nation's wealth and seek bribes, but it is this very practice that keeps Nigeria toward the bottom of the scale when it comes to measures of human development, including access to healthcare, clean drinking water, and decent salaries. (Read Monitor stories about how discontent in the oil-rich Niger Delta region has spurred attacks by militants and the struggles of Nigeria's first anti-corruption czar.)

Nigeria is one of the largest oil-producing nations, but because so few of its own oil refineries actually work, it also one of the largest importers of refined oil products, such as gasoline and diesel. Many Nigerians blame this squarely on corruption of the political class.

Nigeria has plenty of arable land and, until the oil boom of the 1980s, was an agrarian nation, but it only produces 500,000 tons of rice for a nation of 140 million who consume five times that amount each year.

After Obama's snub

Many Nigerians felt stung by the fact that President Obama chose to visit Ghana, a nation with decades of peaceful transfers of power through elections, rather than Nigeria, the region's economic powerhouse. Civil society groups argue that Nigeria's power elites have deliberately constructed an electoral system that allows them to share political power among a tight group, and to share the vast oil wealth that makes up 90 percent of government revenues.

"There are many priorities for those in civil society, but I would hope that at the end of this visit, Clinton will be able to get the Nigerian government to take the issue of electoral reform more seriously," says Collins Okeke, legal coordinator for the Human Rights Law Service in Lagos.

In his July 11 speech at the Ghanaian parliament, Mr. Obama did not single out Nigeria for criticism, but his words neatly described Nigeria's history of military coups, corrupt elites, and rigged elections.

"This is about more than just holding elections," Obama said. "It's also about what happens between elections.... No person wants to live in a society where the rule of law gives way to the rule of brutality and bribery. That is not democracy, that is tyranny, even if occasionally you sprinkle an election in there. And now is the time for that style of governance to end."

A fresh opportunity

But instead of putting the blame for Nigeria's current messy state of affairs, the Clinton visit offers an unusual opportunity to take a fresh look at what works in Nigeria and where there are opportunities to make small but significant improvements in the way Nigeria's business, governmental, and legal environments operate.

"The US approach should be that Nigeria is a potential asset, a resource for regional stability, a country that, if it could have effective reforms at home, could serve a leadership role," says Goldman. But the Obama administration will need to be realistic about what any one leader, including Mr. Yar Adua, can do to change Nigeria. "If it was easy to fix, it would have happened long ago."

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