Peace, Prosperity for Nigeria Are U.S. Priorities, Official Says

The United States supports major initiatives in Nigeria to reduce strife, joblessness and poverty, according to a top State Department official delivering a major speech April 9 in Washington, DC.

Johnnie Carson“Nigeria is too important to be defined by its problems,” Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson told an audience convened by the Center for International and Strategic Studies (CSIS). “It must be defined by its promise – and the resourcefulness of its people."

Carson, at left, said the State Department is establishing a consulate in the strife-torn north of the country as a new sign of commitment. The former ambassador to Kenya (1999-2003), Zimbabwe (1995-1997), and Uganda (1991-1994) praised the administration of President Goodluck Jonathan for its progress. But Carson said much more is needed to prevent terrorists such as the Boko Haram from seeking to exploit ongoing social problems. The dissident group is blamed for an Easter Sunday bombing that killed 25 and wounded others in a Christian church in the northern city of Kaduna.

Amb. Terence McCulleyCarson's audience of about 140 included U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria Terence P. McCulley, right, as well as Nigeria's Ambassador to the United States Ade Adefuye, shown below left in a file photo at an Oval Office meeting at the White House with President Obama.

I attended the CSIS session after I organized an investment conference last year at the National Press Club for those interested in Nigeria's vibrant film industry, as well as the strategic nation's prospects for political reform. Those concerns were voiced by, among others, the conference's keynote speaker, Dr. Patrick Utomi, the founder of the Lagos Business School, a former chairman of the country's national film board, and a reform candidate in the multiparty race against the incumbent, Jonathan.

The incumbent decisively defeated his opponents in what Carson this week described as a transparent and otherwise credible election. Carson praised especially the vigilance of democracy-loving Nigerians in localities following years of questionable procedures. 

Ade Adefuye and Barack Obama

Carson served in Nigeria four decades ago as a young foreign service officer. He began his talk by outlining the strengths of Africa's most populous nation, which has 160 million people.

Then Carson said that 100 million live on less than a dollar a day in the oil-rich nation, where poverty and illiteracy are especially "grim" in the northern regions. He said literacy is just 35% in the north, compared to 77% in the rest of the country. He noted such other pervasive, long-standing problems in the country as joblessness and the lack of a functioning railroad system despite hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue from oil production.

Hillary ClintonHe said the government must "win over the population" by increasing reforms. He praised the progress so far of the U.S.-Nigerian Bilateral Commission created in 2010 through an initiative by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, at left. Regarding the violence of Boko Haram, he said the response should be a "comprehensive plan" by civilian authorities, not martial law.

During Q&A, he responded to several challenging questions. One was why the State Department has not listed Boko Haram as a terrorist organization. Carson said that status is not necessary for the United States to take counter-measures. Another urged the State Department to support Nigerian Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala in current competition to become leader of the World Bank. The Washington Post reported of her April 9:

She is well acquainted with the World Bank, having previously served as a managing director under President Robert B. Zoellick for four years. If she was to win the presidency, Okonjo-Iweala would become the first woman to head the bank and the first president not put forth by the United States.

Okonjo-Iweala and former Colombian finance minister Jose Antonio Ocampo are vying for the job along with the U.S. nominee, Dartmouth College President Jim Yong Kim, who has been endorsed by Canada and Japan. In a letter sent to bank members last week, a group of 39 former World Bank officials said it supports the Ni­ger­ian economist’s candidacy, citing her “deep experience in international and national issues of economic management.” Okonjo-Iweala explained at length why she thinks creating jobs — especially among young people — should be a top priority for the bank.

Carson, a native of Chicago who began his career as a Peace Corps volunteer in Tanzania from 1965 to 1968, praised her but said the United States is committed to its nominee, Kim. Also, he described Kim as an American, not as a Korean as his questioner termed the nominee.

Jennifer CookeCSIS Africa Program Director Jennifer G. Cooke, at left, the conference moderator, introduced the session by describing the global importance of Nigeria. The CSIS introduction said:

As Africa’s most populous nation, the world’s eighth largest exporter of oil, a rapidly emerging economic power and investment destination, and a significant player in regional and continental affairs, Nigeria is among the United States’ most important partners in Africa.  At the same time, the violent aftermath of the 2011 national elections, escalating attacks by militant group Boko Haram, a resurgence of violence in the oil-producing Niger Delta, and the continued influence of powerful vested interests underscore the many challenges that the country’s government and citizenry confront.

Several other major conferences heavily focused on Nigeria and Africa are scheduled also this week in Washington, including one by the U.S. Export-Import Bank featuring former President Bill Clinton and one by the Corporate Council on Africa specifically about Nigeria. I'll take the occasion of so many visitors to hold meetings both on reform issues of interest to the Justice Integrity Project in the United States and, separately, to stay current with business conditions relevant to Eagle View Capital Strategies, my consultancy that organized last year's conference on Nigeria's film industry. 

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Dr. Ngozi Okonjo IwealaUpdated: Justice Integrity Project, Nigerian Progress Reported On Economic and Political Reforms, Andrew Kreig, April 23, 2012. Nigeria is making significant progress on major economic and legal reforms in the wake of last year’s elections, the nation’s finance minister told a Washington audience on April 23. Africa, including Nigeria, is faring better than Europe these days in terms of rate of economic growth said Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, at left. But the world is so inter-connected that Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan initiated a series of rigorous reforms to enable progress for times when an adverse cycle of conditions hurts Nigeria. 

“We’ve used much of our resources since 2008 to put in place ‘counter-cycle policies,’” said the finance minister. When Nigeria experienced booms previously the country “spent everything,” she continued. But that budget formula “was not sustainable.”  She was the developing world’s top candidate this month to lead the World Bank in a rare challenge to United States historic prerogative to pick the bank’s top executive.

Washington Post, Can Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala break America’s hold on the World Bank? Brad Plumer, April 14, 2012. The first time Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala ever had to convince Barack Obama of anything was back in 2005. At the time, Obama was an ambitious young senator from Illinois with a keen interest in foreign affairs. Okonjo-Iweala was Nigeria’s blunt-speaking finance minister, traversing the globe to convince the world’s wealthiest nations that they should ease her country’s debt burden.

“Everybody was saying that this could never be done . . . that it would never happen,” Okonjo-Iweala recounted at an April event in Washington. Eventually, Obama — and the rest of the world — would agree with her. Nigeria paid $12 billion up front to win a further $18 billion in debt relief, and while questions still linger about how good a deal Nigeria got, it removed a major obstacle to the country’s economic growth. She cites the episode as an example of her “persuasive powers.” Seven years later, that young senator is president, and Okonjo-Iweala, now 57, is using her powers on an even more far-fetched idea. She’s making a bid to lead the World Bank, which last year loaned $57 billion to help poor countries develop. But by tradition, the presidency has always gone to the U.S. nominee, and Obama has made his pick: Dartmouth College President Jim Yong Kim. As the bank’s board of directors prepares to make a final decision next week, it’s clear that selecting a woman from Africa would be unprecedented.

Washington Post, World Bank hopeful vows to focus on jobs, Elizabeth Flock, Published: April 9, 2012. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, one of three candidates to lead the World Bank, said Monday that she would focus on an issue that affects developed and developing nations: job creation. After what she called a “marathon” 3 1 / 2-hour interview with the World Bank board of directors, Okonjo-Iweala spoke at an event Monday hosted by Washington Post Live and the Center for Global Development.

She stressed how her vision for the bank would be shaped by personal experience. “I know what it means to go to the stream to fetch water . . . what it means when people are poor and don’t have enough to eat,” she said, recalling what it was like to grow up in a Ni­ger­ian village with her grandmother. “It’s not good enough to say you know about poverty. You have to live it.”

She said that although it’s understandable at a 60-year-old organization for “inertia to set in,” several things that have always been done one way “will have to go.”  Okonjo-Iweala also said she would push the bank to help countries better fight climate change, deal with social and gender rules and build better health systems.

CNN, 25 killed in Easter Sunday bombing in northern Nigeria, Safiya Akau, April 9, 2012.  Dead bodies littered a road in northern Nigeria on Sunday after a massive explosion that an official said killed 25 people and a witness said shattered windows of a nearby church where worshipers were celebrating Easter. Abubakar Zakari, a spokesman for Nigeria's State Emergency Management Agency, said that -- in addition to the dead -- 13 wounded people were rushed to a hospital for treatment. The blast occurred in Kaduna, a city located about 230 kilometers (140 miles) southwest of Kano, around 8:40 a.m. At that time, Sam Amoka said he was inside All Nations Christian Assembly when he heard a loud blast and saw the church's windows break. The bomb itself went off nearby, close to Kaduna's stadium, a bus stop and a spot for street salesmen, Amoka said.