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US, Nigeria Establish Bi-National Commission

The United States and Nigeria on Tuesday signed an agreement, setting up a bi-national commission aimed at helping the west African state promote good governance and fight corruption. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the U.S.-Nigeria relationship "absolutely critical." .

The agreement signed by Secretary Clinton and Nigerian Secretary to the Government of the Federation Yayale Ahmed creates the first of three bi-national commissions that the Obama administration intends to establish with key African states. Others agreement soon to be concluded are with South Africa and Angola.

The U.S.-Nigeria commission will have working groups tasked with helping Nigeria deal with corruption and electoral abuses, domestic energy and agricultural problems,and instability in the critical Niger Delta region.

In comments at the signing ceremony, Clinton said that sustainable economic growth in Nigeria and elsewhere depends on having a responsible government that rejects corruption and enforces the rule of law.

In a reference to the political crisis in Nigeria over the extended illness-related absence of President Umaru Yar'Adua, Clinton paid tribute to the resiliency of the country's leadership. "I know firsthand that Nigerians are strong, determined, resilient, intelligent. But the past year has been a trying one for the Nigerian people. We encourage Nigeria's leaders to continue working together to address political uncertainties, strengthen democratic institutions, and ensure stability and accountability," he said.

Ahmed, a former Nigerian defense minister, said his country faces serious but not insurmountable problems, as seen in its handling of the current crisis in which Vice President Goodluck Jonathan was named acting president by the national assembly last month. "The fact that we have gone through the last few months as a very strong nation indicates that we are a very strong democracy. For it is my belief that no country in Africa could have gone through this and would come out stronger than we did," he said.

The Nigerian official welcomed the Obama administration's decision last week to scrap an airline security program under which Nigerians and nationals from 13 other countries, mainly with Muslim majorities, had been subject to mandatory screening.

The system, now replaced by intelligence-based screening criteria, had been put in place after a Nigerian man allegedly tried to set off an explosive device on a U.S. airliner headed to Detroit in late December.

Ahmed said the country-specific screening program was an affront to Nigeria. He said his country has no history of state-sponsored terrorism and aims to be an important partner with the United States in fighting global terror.

The establishment of the U.S.-Nigeria commission was welcomed by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, the USCIRF, a Congressionally-funded monitoring group.

But the religious freedom panel urged that the bi-national commission deal not only with problems in Nigeria's oil-rich Niger delta region, but also sectarian violence that has killed more than 12,000 people in Nigeria since 1998.

USCIRF's Director of Operations and Outreach David Dettoni says his organization cited Nigeria as a "country of particular concern" because of a culture of impunity in Muslim-Christian violence that has surged in recent months.

"The [USCIRF] commissioners looked at the cycle of impunity, particularly as it pertains to sectarian violence, and saw that nobody was ever held accountable for their role in perpetrating violence, murder, mayhem and destruction. There were arrests but then nobody was ever convicted," he said.

Dettoni says sectarian violence in Nigeria has the potential to spin out of control and that U.S. policy-makers need to put it high on their agenda.