In Nigeria, Clinton Sees a Work in (Slow) Progress
The West African nation has reason for hope, but there's still a long way to go,
says TIME Washington correspondent Mark Thompson, traveling with the president
culled from TIME
Magazine, Monday August 28, 2000
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
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
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