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World Bank's Chief Hails Importance of Africa, Nigeria

  • Nico Colombant

The World Bank's new chief, Paul Wolfowitz, says there is a new attitude in Africa, and that his institution will play an important role in trying to end poverty, amid new prospects of debt relief. He spoke in Nigeria on the first stop of a four-country African tour.

In an interview with the Nigerian This Day newspaper, Mr. Wolfowitz also said the whole world needs to help Africa succeed.

His spokesman, Tim Carrington, says his African visit, less than one month into his term, show's the new World Bank president's own commitment.

"The trip is indicating that Africa is clearly going to be a priority, and it is [actually] the priority," he said. "It does not mean that he is going to ignore the other regions, but it is just that Africa stands out as a unique development challenge."

Among the highlights of Mr. Wolfowitz's second day in Nigeria was a meeting with President Olusegun Obasanjo.

The two discussed debt relief, with the Nigerian president trying to get some of the $35 billion his oil-producing country owes forgiven.

Foreign ministers from the wealthiest nations and the Paris club have been working on a complex buy-back arrangement, which according to Nigerian economist Ayo Teriba, is way short of what Mr. Obasanjo is seeking.

"Nigeria is asking for debt forgiveness, and Nigeria is being offered a solution," he said. "Debt forgiveness is very straightforward. They say, 'Nigeria, you will get debt forgiveness,' then it means both sides have agreed. As it stands, it's not clear that there's agreement on both sides, and it remains to be seen what Nigeria will be offered."

Meanwhile, Mr. Obasanjo welcomed Saturday's deal in London for debt cancellation for 18 poor countries, most in Africa, saying it was like having someone dug up from a pit. He said Nigeria needs help, as well, along with more access to markets, enhanced investment and more intra-African trade.

Mr. Teriba, from the Lagos-based group Economic Associates, says he is also encouraged that donors like the World Bank are being more aggressive in making sure Nigeria cracks down on corruption.

"People now get punished for corrupt practices," he said. "There's been quite a lot of people being brought to book. And one can hope that things can only get better. We have seen the senate president being removed; we've seen ministers being removed; we have seen an inspector general of police being removed, and he's facing trial for corrupt practices. That is quite laudable. And, I think, the government should be encouraged to move more in that direction."

After he finishes his visit to Africa's most populous nation, Mr. Wolfowitz will be in Burkina Faso and Rwanda, two countries qualifying for total debt relief, followed by South Africa.

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