The United States and Nigeria sign an accord Tuesday setting up a high-level bi-national commission, one of three the Obama administration plans to have with key African states. The State Department says the panel will, among other things, try to encourage electoral reform in Nigeria after trouble-ridden elections in 2007.
The agreement, to be signed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Nigerian Secretary to the Federal Government Mahmud Yayale Ahmed, is aimed at solidifying relations between the United States and its leading Africa trading partner.
Nigeria is the third-largest supplier of oil to the United States and among other things, the largest African contributor to international peacekeeping operations.
Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson, briefing reporters on the pending agreement, said the United States views Nigeria - Africa's most populous nation - as a key to regional security.
"Nigeria has played a central, important and positive role in stability and peace in West Africa," said Johnnie Carson. "Liberia and Sierra Leone are peaceful today, under democratic governance today, in large measure due to the enormous political and security commitments made by previous Nigerian leaders. They are a key player, economically, politically and in security in West Africa."
The U.S.-Nigerian bi-national commission will be a prototype for similar panels the Obama administration plans to set up with South Africa and Angola.
It will have working groups aimed at helping Nigeria improve governance and fight corruption, boost economic opportunity in the troubled but oil-rich Niger Delta region, deal with chronic power and refined fuel shortages, and make more of its vast agricultural potential.
Carson said the United States wants in particular to help Nigeria improve the conduct of elections after voting in 2007 was marred by fraud and violence and considered a setback from previous voting.
The chief U.S. Africa diplomat bluntly suggested that replacing controversial Nigerian elections chief Maurice Iwu would be one step that would improve prospects for a fairer national election in 2011.
"We hope that when it comes time to look at reappoint, or the decision to appoint someone else, that his past record be taken into account," he said. "The 2007 elections, in which he was responsible, were deeply flawed, highly condemned inside the country and deeply questioned outside the country. His track record in running elections has not been high or stellar, in fact it's been disappointing."
Carson said the working group on the Niger Delta would be aimed at dealing with the region's multiple problems including high unemployment and environmental degradation.
He categorically rejected a recent report by the newspaper Nigerian Compass that the United States is considering military intervention, if violence in the area threatened oil production.
"Nigeria's security is the responsibility of the central government of Nigeria," said Assistant Secretary of State Carson. "The United States has no, and I repeat, no intention of engaging militarily in Nigeria. The story that you have mentioned is erroneous, false and completely without foundation."
Carson said Nigeria's leadership acted responsibly and within the broad outlines of the constitution when it named Vice President Goodluck Jonathan as acting president in February, due to the prolonged illness-related absence of President Umaru Yar'Adua.
He said the political uncertainty over the change has begun to recede, but that the situation underlines the need to reform the national electoral commission and move toward new elections to be held before May of next year.