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Amnesty a Welcome Respite for Niger Delta Region, Says Analyst

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrapped up a busy day of diplomacy in Nigeria Wednesday, meeting with President Umaru Yar'Adua and Foreign Minister Ojo Maduekwe.

Nigeria is the fifth of seven countries the US official is visiting on her 11-day tour of Africa. Clinton has been pressing for improved bi-lateral ties and for good governance, including continuing democratization and a tough stance against corruption.

After talks with the foreign minister, Clinton called the two-month amnesty period for militants in the oil-rich Delta “very promising.”

She told reporters that Nigerian defense officials have made specific suggestions about how the U.S. military can help bring peace and stability to the Niger Delta. Militants demanding greater autonomy and access to petrol revenues have interrupted oil production in the region and have cost the government millions of dollars.

“We will, through our joint efforts through our bi-national commission mechanism, determine what Nigeria would want from us for help,” she said. “Because we know this is an internal matter, we know this is up to the Nigerian people and their government to resolve, and then look to see how we would offer that assistance."

Analyst J. Peter Pham of James Madison University near Washington, DC, said
the amnesty is “a welcome respite” for the region but called for serious political dialogue and reform.

“The underlying issues that precipitated the Niger Delta conflict,” he said, “remain to be addressed, as do criminality and corruption that fed off the grievances.”

Critics say corruption is a problem not only in the Niger Delta but also on the national level, where international observers questioned the fairness of federal and gubernatorial elections two years ago. Opponents accused the ruling party of massive fraud, a charge the government denies.

He said the US and the international community have a limited amount of influence on Nigeria.

“For a number of years,” said Pham, “the US cut back security cooperation with Nigeria in the 1990s due to the dictatorship that ruled it at the time.

‘’When you cut defense cooperation over these issues, you send a strong signal, [but] you cut off the building of long-term relationships. So many of the officers now at command level in Nigeria were of an age [that] they were cut off from US military education and other programs, [and] we are now just becoming reacquainted, so to speak.”

He said other countries, many of whom depend on Nigeria’s oil exports, also have limited leverage over reforms.

“The fact,” he said, “that the international community, without extracting much in return, wrote off much of its foreign debt leaves the country relatively immune from external pressure. One can engage in dialogue but pressure points are hard to come by.”

Pham said the relationship with Nigeria is a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy, and the U.S. must urge its leaders to move forward.

“We can’t engage Africa without engaging in a serious relationship with the most populous country [on the continent] and the country which, if it were to deal with the internal challenges of corruption and political legitimacy, would be a real powerhouse for Africa economically.”