The Obama administration’s top official on Africa testified Tuesday on U.S. relations with Nigeria, following a five-day visit to the West African country.
Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson appeared before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee. His testimony came amid political controversy and tension in Nigeria, where Vice-President Goodluck Jonathan has been named acting president in the absence of President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua. Mr. Yar’Adua has been in a Saudi Arabian hospital since November and hasn’t been seen in months.
“First, let me express our shared hope that President Yar’Adua…will fully recover. His prolonged absence has generated political uncertainty and has challenged Nigeria’s young democratic institutions,” he said.
But he added that Nigeria has shown “resolve” in finding a peaceful solution to the “leadership vacuum.”
“We commend Nigeria’s top political leaders for pursuing a transparent process, one that has adhered closely to the principles of democracy and the rule of law,” he said.
Free and fair
The State Department official said he held many discussions on Nigeria’s electoral process and has expressed U.S. concerns and criticisms.
“I stressed that Nigeria’s next presidential and national assembly elections, scheduled for April 2011, must be credible. They must be free, fair and transparent and they must be a significant improvement over the country’s 2007 presidential elections, which were deeply embarrassing and deeply flawed.”
He singled out the country’s electoral commission for criticism.
“I urge Nigeria’s leaders to make electoral reform one of Nigeria’s highest priorities. Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, has performed poorly over the past decade and has not served the interest of Nigeria well,” said Carson.
He called for new leadership for INEC.
Security at home and abroad
U.S. / Nigerian relations came into focus last December when a young Nigerian was arrested for allegedly trying to blow up a U.S.-bound jetliner. As a result, domestic and international security was a major topic of discussion during Carson’s trip.
“We seek to enhance Nigeria’s role as a U.S. partner on regional security. But we also seek to bolster its ability to combat violent extremism within its own borders. Nigeria is a partner in counter-terrorism efforts and it is in this context that Nigerians have expressed dissatisfaction with their inclusion on the Transportation Security Administration’s countries of interest list,” he said.
Carson said that some perceived this move as “collective punishment” for one man’s actions.
“In fact, they shared our outrage at the attack and have been providing assistance in the ongoing U.S. investigations,” he said. He added that U.S. friendship with Nigeria “remains strong.”
Nigeria’s oil-rich Niger Delta has been home to much violence over the years between militants and government forces. But a five-month-old truce has reduced tensions, and Carson describes the atmosphere as one of “relative calm.”
He warns, however, that “a resumption of violence cannot be ruled out if the government does not follow through on the implementation of its rehabilitation and reintegration program for the area. We commend the government of Nigeria for initiating the amnesty process and we urge Acting President Goodluck Jonathan to move forward on the implementation of the post-amnesty programs.”