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Nigeria's envoy to U.S. seeks to improve "uneasy friendship"
The Washington Diplomat / July 2006

By Larry Luxner

Nigeria, Africa's most populous country, wants better relations with the United States after years of what its envoy in Washington calls an "uneasy friendship."

In fact, that's the title of a 1992 book, updated in 2003, by Nigerian Ambassador George Achulike Obiozor.

"The United States is the world's No. 1 power, and I'm very delighted to be here," Obiozor told us. "This is a wonderful big country with so many demands on its friends and allies."

Indeed, the Bush administration is only too happy to court Nigeria as an alternative to the Muslim-dominated, politically volatile sheikhdoms of the Middle East.

According to an April 2006 article in The Atlantic Monthly entitled "Worse Than Iraq?" journalist Jeffrey Tayler writes: "With an ethnically and religiously combustible population of 130 million, Nigeria is lurching toward disaster, and the stakes are high — for both Nigeria and the United States. An OPEC member since 1971, Nigeria has 35.9 billion barrels of proven petroleum reserves — the largest of any African country" and the eighth-largest in the world. "It exports some 2.5 million barrels of oil a day, and the government plans to nearly double that amount by 2010."

Yet, as Tayler also writes, "the UN Human Development Index ranks Nigeria as having one of the worst standards of living, below both Haiti and Bangladesh. For all its oil wealth, and after seven years of governance by one of Africa's most highly touted democrats, Nigeria has become the largest failed state on Earth."

Ambassador Obiozor dismisses such talk as nonsense.

In a lengthy interview last month, he cited the various achievements of President Olusegun Obasanjo, a retired general first elected in 1998 and now in his second term.

"We have managed to reduce poverty from 70% of the population to 50% in the last six years. That is a very successful program," he told the Washington Diplomat. "We have also been able to negotiate and successfully pay off our debt to the Paris Club. So without this debt overhanging Nigeria, we can concentrate on alleviating poverty."

Obiozor says his country's actual population is around 150 million, which would rank it No. 6 after China, India, the United States, Indonesia and Brazil. Because of extremely high growth rates — its population exploded by 33% between 1990 and 2000 — Nigeria is now ahead of Russia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Japan and Mexico.

One result is that the country's commercial capital, Lagos, has evolved into Africa's largest metropolis, with 13 million people. In 2000, Nigeria even had more children under 5 years old (20.9 million) than did the United States (19.1 million).

Clearly, Nigeria's increasing regional influence as well as its oil wealth make good relations with Washington imperative, though Obiozor said that was not always the case.

"Friendships between an aspiring regional power and the world's only superpower must be handled very carefully, because there are bound to be many areas of cooperation, as well as areas of conflict," the ambassador said. "Today, our levels of conflict have been reduced because of the decolonization process and particularly the apartheid issue.

"Nigeria was part of the front line of African states struggling against apartheid in the 1970s, and relations with the U.S. were not very good. But since the end of apartheid, the relationship has become more defined in terms of political development, particularly with the Bush administration," Obiozor told the Diplomat.

"In fact, the Bush administration has surprised Africa by doing so many positive things. The evidence is there. The Millennium Goal set by the administration has been positive and quite unexpected. And above all is the diversion of $15 billion to fight HIV/AIDS, TB and malaria in Africa."

Obiozor acknowledged that "the Clinton administration was unique in many ways. There's no doubt about that. But Bush has been more practical in implementing his Africa policies than any other American president in recent years."

And oil is certainly part of that equation.

Nigeria is now the fifth-largest petroleum exporter to the United States — about on par with Venezuela. At the recent 2005 Africa Oil & Gas Forum in Washington, U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman said that by 2020, one out of every four barrels of petroleum consumed by Americans will come from Africa, primarily the oil-rich Gulf of Guinea.

Yet according to a 2004 World Bank report cited in the Atlantic Monthly article, 80% of Nigeria's oil wealth is controlled by only 1% of the population. Furthermore, an estimated $300 billion in oil revenues has been stolen or squandered in the past 25 years, during which time Nigeria's annual per-capita income has fallen from $1,000 to $390.

According to a 2005 survey of political freedom published by Washington-based Freedom House, "the majority of Nigerians are engaged in small-scale agriculture, while most wealth is controlled by a small elite. The agriculture and manufacturing sectors have deteriorated considerably in the pursuit of oil, which accounts for more than 98% of the country's export revenues and almost all foreign investment."

Obiozor acknowledges that mistakes were made in the 1970s and 1980s, but claims President Obasanjo is doing things differently — especially now, with crude oil prices regularly topping $70 a barrel.

"That could have been said in the past, but not with the present administration. Today, there is a link between our national development and our status as an oil-producing country," he said. "We have seen both the abuse of resources and the positive use of resources. The most important thing is that today, we are wiser in handling such a windfall and using it towards our own development. In the past, you had stories of corruption, but there's been tremendous progress. We're trying hard to convince people that this isn't the case anymore."

Freedom House, for one, isn't convinced.

"Corruption has bled the country of billions of dollars in oil revenue," says the NGO, noting that Nigeria ranked 144th out of 146 in Transparency International's 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index. On the other hand, it acknowledged that the Obasanjo government "has taken steps to improve transparency and reduce corruption, including reforming procedures for contract procurements and bidding."

Obiozor agrees that Nigeria has a very long way to go, but points out that "corruption in Nigeria is being controlled and checked very severely. We have three or four agencies dealing with corruption, including the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission and the Independent Corrupt Practices Commission."

As far as the so-called "419" scams, Obiozor said "I myself get those spam e-mails."

So named because these advance fee fraud scams violate Section 419 of the Nigerian Criminal Code, they began in the 1980s in the form of letters mailed to unsuspecting individuals, and have since evolved into sophisticated fax and Internet operations targeting tens of millions of people.

"You have to ask yourself, what kind of people would respond to faxed messages from someone they don't know?" Obiozor said. "The whole truth of the matter is that this kind of fraud attracts only criminals. They are themselves to blame, because if you are a genuine businessman you can go to any of our embassies or consulates to verify."

Obiozor, 63, is originally from the Nigerian state of Imo, and his native language is Ibo. He attended Albert Schweitzer College's Institute of African Studies in Geneva (1966-67) as well as the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Wash. (1967-69) and New York's Columbia University (1969-76), eventually earning a doctorate in political science.

From 1991 to 1999, Obiozor headed the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, and in 1999 was named Nigerian ambassador to Israel — his only diplomatic appointment before coming to Washington two years ago.

He noted that Nigeria has had strong ties with the Jewish state dating back to the days of David Ben-Gurion in the 1950s.

"In Nigeria, there's a deep-rooted admiration for Israel, a little state that turned itself into a veritable breadbasket and an island of prosperity and freedom," he said. "Israel recognized its need for Africa's friendship and kept giving aid until the relationship collapsed in 1973 [with the Yom Kippur War]. But it picked up again in the early 1980s, ironically beginning with Egypt. Today, we have a visible presence of Israelis in many areas, particularly construction, tourism and telecommunications (see related story).

"For Africans and people of African descent, the 21st century is our century. However, I believe the key to the realization of our dreams lies in our ability to learn the lessons of history, particularly the history of the Jews, and their astronomical success in all endeavors. Clearly, the greatest answer to oppression is success."

Here in Washington, Obiozor directs a staff of 60 at the Nigerian Embassy on International Court, right off Connectict Avenue.

His days are usually filled with attending prayer breakfasts, Congressional meetings, business discussions and talks with other ambassadors — frequently those from other West African nations.

"The prestige of your country is translated to the individual, and vice-versa," he explained. 'When you represent your country, you symbolize your strengths and weaknesses. Being a Nigerian is a very unique experience. It confers upon me a high level of acceptability among my colleagues."

Obiozor said Nigeria's major foreign-policy focus has been "the stability and progress in the West African subregion." His country was crucial, for example, in bringing about a level of stability in nearby Liberia and returning wanted war criminal and former president Charles Taylor to his homeland last March to face justice for various atrocities.

"The war in Liberia was prolonged because of the role of Charles Taylor and his men. We decided that unless Taylor was removed from the theater of war, the war would continue unabated, and there would be no peace in Liberia," he said. We persuaded Taylor to leave Liberia. Eventually, he agreed to do so."

Nigeria is also heavily involved in finding a solution to the Darfur crisis unfolding in faraway Sudan.

"Nigeria has the largest number of troops in Darfur for peacekeeping and the protection of civilians. These troops come under the auspices of the African Union. The feeling is clearly that we're doing a positive thing in order to stop the carnage going on there," he explained. "The reality today is that Africa alone cannot carry the responsibility of bringing peace there. It's imperative for the United Nations to be clearly involved."

Back home, Nigeria faces enormous challenges ahead. The country, encompassing some 250 ethnic groups in all, seems perennially plagued by ethnic fighting that often leads to horrific violence. At present, 12 of Nigeria's 36 states impose sharia, or Islamic law — despite angry protests by Christians.

At the same time, some 65% of the population is said to live on less than $1.00 a day, while the rich get richer.

According to Tayler of Atlantic Monthly, "the religious tensions commingle with ethnic ones. Obasanjo has lifted many dictatorial strictures on daily life, but in the absence of effective security forces, this has only heightened clashes among the populace. During his rule, the most lethal period of unrest in the country's history, more than 10,000 people have died. One of the worst zones of conflict is the Niger River Delta in the south, the site of most of Nigeria's mainland petroleum reserves."

The dangerous practice of "bunkering" or illegally tapping into oil and gas pipelines costs Nigeria an estimated 200,000 barrels of petroleum a day. It has also cost untold thousands of lives — most recently on the outskirts of Lagos, where in mid-May a spark set off by thieves cutting into a pipeline caused an explosion that killed more than 150 people.

Even so, claims the ambassador, the country is getting better, not worse — and that it's attracting more foreign investment every day.

"I'm completely convinced that if the present policy of our government is carried out, Nigeria could be a developed country in the next 10 or 15 years. We will have put on the ground institutionalized structures for political stability and economic growth — the same way India arrived at a convergence between human resources and natural resources through technology. That's what we're aiming at, and we will achieve it, based on today's record."

For example, Obiozor said that in 1999, there were only 400,000 telephone lines for a country that at that time had 100 million inhabitants. Today, Nigeria has an estimated 26 million lines, 80% of them wireless — translating into a phone density of 17.3 lines per 100 people.

"There are still lots of opportunities for growth in telecommunications, since we are a vast country in size and number," he said, adding that road and housing construction are also big growth areas, as well as agriculture, especially food processing.

"The No. 1 challenge for Nigeria is to make this leap from Third World to First World as soon as possible," he said. "This is extremely important for the present government. We have started laying the foundations for Nigeria's irreversible takeoff to become a modern, stable and viable nation."

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