US governance message for Nigeria

ABUJA: US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took her campaign for good governance Wednesday to Nigeria, hoping to deepen ties with the African power but also help fight corruption and religious strife.

On a whirlwind trip through Africa, Clinton was holding a day of talks in Abuja, the capital of the continent's most populous nation, including a meeting with President Umaru Musa Yar?Adua.

Clinton was also due to hold a roundtable discussion with religious leaders in the wake of recent violence, the latest part of US President Barack Obama's bid to reach out to the Islamic world.

Clinton's top Africa advisor said that ties with Nigeria were crucial to the US relationship with the continent due to the country's vast size and its major oil industry, much of which feeds the US market.

"Nigeria is undoubtedly the most important country in sub-Saharan Africa," Johnnie Carson, the assistant secretary of state for Africa, told reporters on Clinton's plane to Abuja from the Democratic Republic of Congo late Tuesday.

Carson said that the United States had a "very good relationship" with Nigeria over recent years and hailed the country's increasingly active regional profile, including efforts to stabilise Sierra Leone and Liberia.

"Despite our close relationship, Nigeria faces a number of major challenges," Carson said.

He pointed to attacks on oil facilities in the Niger Delta which cost the developing country hundreds of thousands of barrels in crude a day and a flare-up in religious strife in a nation with sub-Saharan Africa's biggest Muslim population.

Nigerian security forces late last month crushed an uprising by a self-styled Taliban fundamentalist group in several northern states, leaving more than 800 people dead, the majority of them sect members.

The Obama administration has made outreach to the Islamic world a signature US policy, hoping to assuage some of the bitterness among many Muslims over former president George W. Bush's policies, particularly in the invasion of Iraq.

Clinton was set to hold a roundtable discussion with religious leaders at the Yar'Adua Centre, named after Shehu Musa Yar'Adua, the late elder brother of the current president and advocate of democratic rule.

A senior US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that Clinton would listen to the religious leaders but that her main message would be on good governance and electoral reform.

Yar'Adua won a 2007 election that poll monitors said was riddled with problems. Nonetheless, some observers saw it as at least a small step forward in a regional giant that has only experienced few peaceful transitions of power.

"Nigeria is at something of a political crossroads. The last elections were deeply flawed," the senior US official said.

He said that Clinton would encourage Nigeria to undertake electoral reforms to ensure future polls can move forward without so much controversy.

Clinton will also hold a public forum with representatives of civil society on ways to fight Nigeria's notorious corruption.

Clinton has made good governance a key issue on her seven-nation trip. Obama in an address in Ghana last month called on Africans to take charge of their futures by standing up against corruption.