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Monday, 24 August 2009

Clinton seen taking tough line on graft in Nigeria

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By Felix Onuah

ABUJA (Reuters) - The fight against corruption and electoral reform are expected to be high on the agenda when U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meets Nigerian President Umaru Yar'Adua on Wednesday.

Clinton arrives in Africa's most populous nation and its biggest energy producer on Tuesday as part of a seven-nation, 11-day trip to the continent, a month after U.S. President Barack Obama visited nearby Ghana.

Obama's itinerary on his first official trip to Africa and his insistence on the importance of good governance was seen as a snub by some Nigerians, who will be looking to Clinton's visit to restore some of their damaged pride.

"Nigeria is probably the most important country in sub-Saharan Africa: 140 million people, 75 million of whom are Muslims," Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Johnnie Carson, said ahead of Clinton's trip.

But Nigeria's importance to the United States, not least as the provider of around 8 percent of its petroleum, does not necessarily mean Clinton will hide behind diplomatic niceties.

Analysts expect a tough line on corruption in a country regularly ranked among the world's most tainted and on electoral reform meant to avoid a repeat of the polls in 2007 which brought Yar'Adua to power.

"We'd like to see greater improvement in their electoral performance ... which will help strengthen their democracy. We'd also like them to address issues of corruption and transparency," Carson said, adding the U.S. goal was not to "lecture" African governments.

Diplomats based in Nigeria, who share concerns about the country's governance, said they would be watching to see how much of that message Clinton was prepared to convey in public and how much would remain behind closed doors.

"Clinton will to some extent be setting the tone of how the wider international community decides to view Nigeria," one diplomat in the capital Abuja said, asking not to be named.


Carson said U.S. investment in Nigeria in the oil production and services industry was well above $15 billion and that Washington was concerned about having a "good energy relationship" with Abuja.

But U.S. oil firms ExxonMobil and Chevron are among those concerned by planned reforms to the oil sector which they say will saddle them with additional costs and lead to the review of existing contracts.

Oil Minister Rilwanu Lukman told Reuters on Tuesday that Nigeria's national interest was paramount and that the Petroleum Industry Bill currently before parliament was not meant to "entirely please" foreign firms.

Clinton is also likely to seek an update on the status of a 60-day amnesty period in the Niger Delta, an effort to end years of instability in the heartland of the Nigerian oil industry.

Yar'Adua holds the rotating chairmanship of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and regional security is also expected to be on the agenda.

A string of elections in West Africa this year have passed peacefully, but most have been backward steps for democracy with the potential to incite further power grabs.

A poll in Mauritania that legitimized a military coup and one in Congo Republic which gave a long-serving president a new term in office were both denounced by the opposition as rigged.

Last week Niger's President Mamadou Tandja declared victory in a referendum he called to extend his term of office in the uranium-producing Saharan state, defying international criticism and domestic protests that the move was anti-constitutional.



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