USA - Nigeria : Empty Gesture Politics?

By Vesely, Milan | African Business, October 2000 | Go to article overview

USA - Nigeria : Empty Gesture Politics?


Vesely, Milan, African Business


Its all in the eye of the beholder. That was the verdict on President Bill Clinton's August 25-28th trip to Africa and with headlines in the US dominated by raging wildfires, a buoyant stock market and the upcoming Presidential election, was it fair to expect anything more?

President Clinton's final, three day foray to Africa generated much enthusiasm in the countries visited, Nigeria, Tanzania and Egypt. Clinton's trip highlighted the abysmal lack of interest in African affairs among both the American public and US Congressmen. Even African stalwarts such as the Reverend Jesse Jackson were hard pressed to generate much enthusiasm.

Commenting on a Sunday talk show, the Rev Jackson conceded that without the Apartheid issue to generate controversy, Africa's problems of debt relief, AIDS and regional conflicts have been relegated to the back burner of the American international concerns.

First stop in President Clinton's whirlwind, three day safari was Nigeria - a $4bn a year, 8% supplier of American oil. Ostensibly to support that West African nation's return to civilian rule, the trip was more a US oil industry promotion than a mutual interest visit.

Side-tracked by American concern for the high price of oil - now seemingly stuck at $30 plus a barrel, despite OPEC's promise of an increase of 500,000 barrels a day - President Obasanjo's plea for American leadership to solve Africa's conflicts fell on deaf ears and his request for a moratorium on Nigeria's $30bn foreign debt also got short shrift.

Trade, not debt- relief

Instead, wide-ranging initiatives granting duty-free access for Nigerian goods, a promise to review restrictions on the Export Import Bank's cover on Nigerian exports and a $1.2bn accord with six Nigerian banks drove home the US. administration's insistence that trade, not debt relief, should be Africa's focus.

"Debt relief is just like oil money," President Clinton told his host, alluding to Nigeria's squandered oil wealth. "You can take it and go give it to everybody and in two or three months it will all be gone."

Nigeria's anger at draconian restrictions imposed by the US State department against its citizens wishing to travel to the United States received the same treatment. Parrying questions with a barely disguised deflection, President Clinton stated that he was unaware that less than 20% of visa applications get approved - and those that do, only after a four month delay.

"Frankly, I was not aware of the dimensions of the visa problem until I was preparing to come here," Clinton told a news conference, avoiding mention of Nigeria's reputation as a haven for con artists and criminal syndicates with international links. Promising to "go back and take a look at this situation" the US President conceded that legitimate Nigerian businessmen were being made scapegoats for a few bad eggs. Refusing to be engaged on this matter further, President Clinton only promised: "to find a way to solve it in a way that is consistent with our laws", for which read no change expected.

Concluding his visit with a cultural trip to the Muslim capital of Abuja, President Clinton and daughter Chelsea toured an AIDS clinic, watched a display of colourful tribal dancing and avoided any mention of Nigeria's dismissal of three senate presidents in one year on charges of corruption. Onlooker Emanuel Uzoechi summed up the US President's visit with a wry observation. "He should not trust our leaders," the village tailor opinionated. "They steal by signing with pens and so he should be careful about cancelling our debt. It is not poor people like me who have made Nigeria's name a bad one in the world."

By-passing Kenya

The second leg of President Clinton's trip took him to Tanzania to witness the signing of a Burundi peace accord negotiated by Nobel peace-prize winner Nelson Mandela. Pointedly by-passing Kenya and Uganda as a sign of US displeasure at the Moi government's corruption scandals and Uganda's Congo invasion, President Clinton arrived at Kilimanjaro airport near Arusha to be greeted by the collapse of the peace accord so painstakingly hammered out by the ex-South African President. …

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