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Nigeria Worries Debt Relief Not Enough

  • Gabi Menezes

Olusegun Obasanjo
African leaders, including Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo have called for the G8 to give African countries universal debt relief by 2007. But some Nigerians question whether they will benefit from debt cancellation, if it is conditional on economic reforms.

Almost all West African countries, except for Nigeria, are considered "Heavily Indebted Poor Countries," a country so poor it cannot sustain its debt.

Nigeria's external debt is around $35 billion, but it is also the seventh-largest oil producer in the world. The Nigerian president and head of the African Union, Olusegun Obasanjo, has been pushing for universal debt cancellation in Africa.

Debt relief campaigners, such as Trisha Rogers, the coordinator of the British Jubilee Drop the Debt campaign, argue that Nigeria should receive debt relief because money was lent to the country under corrupt dictatorships. She says that all governments should be given the chance to direct money from repaying their debt into areas like health and education.

Ms. Rogers adds that while outsiders should not dictate a nation's economic policies in return for debt relief, there should be safeguards against corruption.

"We feel absolutely that the governments should be accountable, so that they show clearly what they are using the money for, but we very strongly disagree with the imposition of economic policy conditions such as forcing privatization," she said.

But many Nigerians are not so sure they will benefit from any debt relief that the government receives from industrialized states. Recently, the 19 member Paris Club said it would draw up a plan to cancel $1.8 billion of Nigeria's debt. The promise depends on a repayment agreement between Nigeria and the International Monetary Fund.

Nigerian union leader George Odah says he is skeptical that western countries are doing what is best for Nigeria.

"The terms and conditions under which this debt relief is coming have not been made known to Nigerians," he said. "Our fear is that we hope that it will not be used to further put pressure on our government, so that our markets can be opened and become the dumping ground of goods from industrialized countries."

In acknowledgment that debt relief alone will not eradicate poverty in Africa, the 53-member African Union, in a statement Tuesday, asked for a fair and equitable trading system to be established alongside debt cancellation.

At the African Union meeting, U.N. Secretary-General Koffi Annan said that most countries would prefer to use trade to lift themselves out of poverty than to live on handouts.

But Africa analyst Olly Owen says that even if trade tariffs and subsidies are abolished very few West African countries will be able to truly benefit.

"Were subsidies on say, cotton in the U. S. lifted tomorrow, Central Asian producers might be in a much better position for example than African producers like Burkina Faso or Chad. So they really need help to be competitive in an international global environment, even without protectionist measures in place," he said.

The G8 is meeting to discuss ways of helping to eradicate poverty in Africa. A $40 billion debt relief package from the G8, has already been welcomed by African leaders, but they say they need total debt cancellation. Despite many debt relief packages, Africa pays about $2.5 billion to service its debt each year.

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