Corruption undermines Nigeria’s gov’t

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Wednesday said corruption has undermined the legitimacy of Nigeria’s government and urged the oil-rich nation to embrace broad political reform and ease sectarian tensions.

In the Nigerian capital of Abuja on the fifth stop in a seven-nation tour Africa, Clinton told an audience of Nigerian civic activists that a culture of corruption and incompetence has hobbled Nigeria’s ability to grow as an economic power and benefit its deprived citizens.

“The most immediate source of the disconnect between Nigeria’s wealth and its poverty is a failure of governance at the federal, state and local level,” she said.

Clinton said Nigeria’s “lack of transparency and accountability has eroded the legitimacy of the government and contributed to the rise of groups that embrace violence and reject the authority of the state.”

She cited a recent World Bank report that said Nigeria has lost more than $300 billion to corruption and mismanagement over the past three decades. And she said that reform can only come by “fixing Nigeria’s flawed election system.”

Clinton raised the possibility that if Nigeria showed strong signs of change, it could lead to its entry into the G-20 nations, providing a voice in global economic and political decision-making.

During an earlier news conference, Clinton expressed concern about tensions that have led to sectarian violence and disrupted energy production in the Niger Delta. She said the Nigerian government needed to take action to protect its status as the continent’s largest oil producer and top recipient of American investment.

“We strongly support and encourage the government of Nigeria’s efforts to increase transparency, reduce corruption (and) provide support for democratic processes in preparation for the 2011 elections,” Clinton told a news conference after meeting Nigerian Foreign Minister Ojo Maduekwe.

Some reformers cautioned that the Nigerian administration has done little to counter its culture of corruption.

Dr. Jibrin Ibrahim, head of the Centre for Democracy and Development, a Nigerian think tank, said, “Things have gone down rather than up in the fight against corruption since this government came into power.”

Ibrahim said Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, the government’s anti-corruption watchdog, has been less progressive about pursuing cases and audits on the country’s oil industry were running four years behind.

U.S. officials regard Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, as a bellwether for the continent’s success. They have grown worried about the coup-prone country’s political situation, especially after 2007 elections were marred by fraud.

Maduekwe insisted there was a “national consensus on issues of enhanced democracy, a deep commitment to rule of law and electoral reforms” and pledged that President Umaru Yar’Adua’s government would deliver on reform.

Nigeria is the fifth largest supplier of oil to the United States and U.S. officials are also troubled by unrest and kidnappings in the Niger Delta, where indigenous groups have complained vehemently about exploitation of oil reserves by foreign petroleum companies.

Violence in the region has led to cuts in production that in June led to Angola surpassing Nigeria in monthly oil production.

To deal with the situation, Yar’Adua has offered militants in the Niger Delta amnesty if they turn in their arms, register and take part in reintegration programs.

Maduekwe said the offer, which took effect earlier this month, was the result of a realization that military might was not quelling the unrest. He claimed the week-old amnesty offer had already succeeded in improving oil production levels.

Clinton said the amnesty approach was “very promising” and said Washington would look at ways it might be able to assist. She added that she wanted to help ensure that “money from the earth and its riches should be spent on the people” of Nigeria and other African nations.

However, an amnesty held under the previous administration failed to halt the violence. Some analysts say instability will continue as long as corruption, pollution and poverty remain unaddressed by the government.

U.S. officials are concerned by a recent explosion of sectarian violence sparked by the killing of the head of the militant Islamist Boko Haram sect that left more than 700 people dead in the mainly Muslim north.

The emergence of Boko Haram ? which is translated as “Western education is sacrilege” and seeks the imposition of strict Islamic Shariah law in secular Nigeria ? has led to fears of the spread of Islamist extremism in the country.

Clinton declined to offer an opinion on the government’s actions during the violence that began after sect members attacked a police station and the death in apparent custody of the group’s leader, but said there was “no doubt” that Islamist extremists wanted to expand their influence in Africa.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.