The U.S. and Nigeria announced an initiative to expand cooperation on energy, food security and governance aimed at strengthening ties between the West African nation and one of its biggest oil customers.
“Today we are taking a concrete step forward that will strengthen and deepen the partnership between our two nations,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in Washington today as she formally inaugurated the U.S.-Nigeria Binational Commission with Nigerian Secretary to the Federal Government Yalale Ahmed. “It reflects the commitment of the United States to this absolutely critical bilateral relationship.”
Clinton signaled renewed engagement with Nigeria with a trip there in August during which she pledged to start the commission and reestablish a U.S. diplomatic presence in northern Nigeria. The fifth-largest supplier of U.S. crude imports, Nigeria faces violence in its oil-rich Niger River Delta, Christian-Muslim religious tensions and, since November, a leadership crisis.
“Reinvigorating the Binational Commission, which had existed during the Clinton administration, allows us to have a more regular and sustained dialogue, whether it’s security issues, health, or the upcoming elections,” said Jennifer Cooke, director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“Particularly during the Bush administration there wasn’t the consistent, broad-based engagement in Nigeria that the country warrants, given its oil, given its size, its leadership role on the continent and the security and economic dynamics at play,” Cooke said.
The U.S. bought about 1 million barrels of oil a day from Nigeria in December, according to Energy Department data.
The Obama administration also announced today that Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano would visit Nigeria on April 11 at the invitation of the government to discuss ways to bolster global aviation security.
A Nigerian man, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, is accused of trying to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight on its approach to Detroit on Dec. 25 by igniting explosives in his underwear.
The commission will probably be made up of four working groups, the U.S. ambassador to Nigeria, Robin Sanders, said in a telephone interview. These groups will focus on good governance and elections, the Niger Delta and related security concerns, energy and investment, and food security.
The governance group will first prepare for Nigeria’s 2011 elections, while the $25 million food-security initiative will focus on helping with agribusiness, farmer cooperatives, access to markets and work on staple crop yields, Sanders said.
The commission “represents the future of this strategic dialogue and provides the framework for us to discuss these key areas we share with Nigeria,” said Sanders.
The working groups will meet in Washington and Abuja, the Nigerian capital, in the coming months, said State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley.
Speaking at the signing ceremony alongside Clinton, Ahmed said the agreement would allow Nigeria “to move forward in a more responsible way to enhance our chances of being a great nation.”
Nigerian President Umaru Yar’Adua hasn’t been seen in public since traveling to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment in November. He didn’t formally transfer authority to his deputy, Goodluck Jonathan, who has been acting president in his absence, creating instability.
Yar’Adua’s “prolonged absence has generated political uncertainty and has challenged Nigeria’s young democratic institutions,” U.S. Assistant Secretary for Africa Johnnie Carson told a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee in February.
The president’s absence has delayed decisions on issues such as ending fuel subsidies, implementing an amnesty for former rebel fighters in the Niger Delta and on an oil-industry bill.
Jonathan, 52, dissolved the 42-member Cabinet on March 17, five weeks after taking over from Yar’Adua. Sanders said Jonathan’s actions “over the last few weeks signal movement in the right direction.”
She cited Jonathan’s verbal commitment to work toward credible elections, his outreach to militants in the Niger Delta to solidify an amnesty agreement, his work on an election reform commission report and changes he has made in the Cabinet.
Today, Jonathan named Olusegun Aganga, who works at Goldman Sachs Group Inc., as finance minister for his new Cabinet and replaced many of the ministers he dismissed two weeks ago.
The former mines minister, Diezani Alison-Madueke, was named as the new petroleum minister at a swearing-in ceremony today in Abuja. Jonathan has said that 13 former ministers will remain in the Cabinet.
“What we have gone through these last few months indicates that we are a very strong democracy,” Ahmed said. He added that “no country in Africa could have gone through this and come out stronger than we did.”