Secretary of State Hillary Clinton offered up a blunt assessment of problems in Africa’s most populous nation Wednesday, accusing the government of Nigeria of enabling a culture of corruption.
On the fifth stop of a seven-nation African tour, Clinton met with Nigerian officials and gave a speech in which she urged the country to fight corruption and pursue democratic reforms.
Her message resonated strongly with the former head of Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, Nuhu Ribadu, who now lives in what he describes as “self-exile” in the United States.
“The U.S. government must be honest, not diplomatic,” says Ribadu, who is now a visiting fellow at the Center for Global Development, a Washington, D.C. think tank. “The U.S. must be on the side of the Nigerian people, not on the side of the leaders.”
Clinton spoke out on Nigeria’s corruption problems after a meeting with Nigerian President Umaru Yar’Adua, whose election in 2007 was widely denounced as fraudulent by international observers.
Clinton said the country’s “lack of transparency and accountability has eroded the legitimacy of the government and contributed to the rise of groups that embrace violence.” She pressed for electoral reforms in time for elections in 2011.
Nigeria’s foreign minister told reporters after the meeting that Yar’Adua had acknowledged that “we have some serious challenges there.”
Ribadu says corruption is more than a challenge. “It’s the biggest problem confronting us,” he says. Ribadu points out that Nigeria is the world’s sixth largest exporter of oil, but “we’ve not been able to use the resources that we have, because it goes into private pockets.”
He says that Nigeria’s main security problems, a long-running insurgency in the oil-rich Niger Delta and a sectarian conflict in the north of the country, can be traced to disaffection among those who feel that they have been prevented from sharing in Nigeria’s wealth.
More than 700 people were killed last month in clashes between police and a radical Islamic sect in the northern city of Maiduguri. The sect recruited mainly jobless young men “reacting to corruption that is at the heart of the problem,” Ribadu says.
Clinton did not comment directly on the crackdown against the Boko Haram â€” the name means “Western education is prohibited” â€” but said that the U.S. has “no doubt that al-Qaida has a presence in North Africa” and that extremists would “seek a foothold wherever they can.”