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Helping Nigeria help us

EDITORIALS: THE SATURDAY PAGE

April 29, 2006

NOTHING FOCUSES THE MIND like the prospect of being hanged -- or paying $4 a gallon for gas. If a decade of fervent international calls for the United States to devote more resources and attention to the suffering of Africa for humanitarian reasons went largely unheeded, maybe self-interest will give the U.S. a prod. Instability in Nigeria has played a big role in the recent run-up in oil prices. The lesson is that Africa is becoming increasingly important to U.S. economic and strategic interests, particularly as Al Qaeda shows signs of turning African countries into its next recruiting ground and China continues signing deals for African oil reserves.

That should provide the impetus for a concerted effort to treat the problems gnawing away at Nigeria, which undoubtedly would do more to lower gas prices than most of the absurd cosmetic fixes being proposed by Congress and President Bush. Crushing poverty, disease, corruption and the wildly unfair distribution of oil wealth have left the nation in a state of low-level rebellion that has prompted attacks on Nigeria's oil infrastructure, cutting production by about 20% from the fifth-biggest oil supplier to the U.S. But the problems are nothing an infusion of U.S. know-how and political pressure couldn't help.

The first order of business should be persuading Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo to pledge not to seek or accept a third term in office. Obasanjo's supporters are trying to amend the nation's constitution to allow three terms, a disastrous move in a country torn by a history of military dictators who refused to surrender power. Obasanjo hasn't endorsed the amendment, but he hasn't opposed it either. He should know that democracy in Nigeria is far too fragile to allow this charade to continue.

More difficult will be addressing the problems that have prompted rebels in the Niger Delta to attack oil facilities and kidnap workers. Their methods are reprehensible, and the U.S. must be careful not to leave the impression that thugs get results. The best way to fight them is to work against the conditions that allow them to thrive. The people of the Niger Delta are some of the poorest in the world, living in villages that have been severely polluted by oil operations while enjoying none of the wealth being produced. With some pressure and assistance from the United States, the oil companies should speed their cleanup while the government builds up more services and infrastructure for the region.

For all its troubles, Nigeria is actually one of Africa's success stories. It's critical that its progress under seven years of Obasanjo's rule continue.

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