Not only is Nigeria an economically critical and influential country in Africa, its diversity and struggle to integrate democracy in the face of adversity has been a model for other African countries for over half a century. It is Africa's most populous nation - home to nearly 150 million people or about one-fifth of the population of the African continent, - as well as one of the most diverse countries therein. As such, Nigeria is a pivotal country, and its fate impacts that of the entire continent. The progress of democracy in Nigeria, its management of its internal divisions, its approach to HIV/AIDS, and its ability to achieve economic success, will have repercussions far beyond its own borders. Nigeria also represents an important African partner for the U.S., particularly, but not only, in economic terms. It is a major American trading partner in Africa and ranks among the world's top oil suppliers.
Nigeria returned to civilian rule in 1999 after years of military government following the death of the junta leader, Sani Abacha in 1998. Despite this important transition, its democracy still remains fragile, and hopes of greater political and social stability and economic growth have been frustrated. An effort by some members of the National Assembly to amend the constitution to permit President Olusegun Obasanjo to run for a third term in 2007 was overturnedand, on May 29, President Obasanjo stepped down from office - replaced by his hand-picked successor from the People's Democratic Party (PDP), Umaru Musa Yar'Adua. President Yar'Adua won a landslide victory of 70% during the April 21 national election. Local, regional and international observers widely decried the elections as riddled with fraud and ballot manipulation, and 200 people died in violence surrounding the event.Though 50,000 Nigerians making up the Transition Monitoring Group (TMG) said polls were "a charade" that would require a new vote to lend the results any legitimacy,Yar'Adua assumed the presidency despite these criticisms.
Regionally, Nigeria has played a leading role in diplomatic, military, and peacekeeping efforts on the African continent. In 2003, Nigeria helped negotiate former Liberian President, Charles Taylor's, step-down from power, and sent in troops to help stabilize the country. Then, in March of 2006, then-President Obasanjo authorized the extradition of Taylor, as well as his transfer to the Special Court for Sierra Leone for war crimes (eventually relocated to The Hague, Netherlands in order to avoid any resulting threats to the region's stability). That same year, Obasanjo offered Abuja, Nigeria's capital, as a forum for the negotiation of the Darfur Peace Agreement, in addition to mediation support, and troops for the African Union's (AU) Darfur peacekeeping mission. In 2007, President Yar'Adua continued this support for resolving the crisis in Darfur, pledging more troops to the United Nations-African Union (UN-AU) hybrid force deployed at the end of that year. He was also the first African leader to condemn corruption in Zimbabwe and speak out openly against its long-time president, Robert Mugabe. This was an important first step that ultimately led to the Southern African Development Community's (SADC) mediation of the 2008 Power Sharing Agreement in Zimbabwe.
Nigeria has also played a pivotal role in the establishment and development of regional and pan-African institutions such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the African Union (AU).
Internally, Nigeria continues to experience ethnic and religious violence. Much of this violence is rooted in the struggle to control oil in the Niger Delta; however, poverty, unemployment, competition for land, and other socio-economic issues have been a source of conflict as wellParts of the country remain particularly underdeveloped, and certain regions vigorously dispute their economic and political marginalization. The introduction of a particularly punitive interpretation of Sharia criminal law in 12, predominately Muslim states has also heightened tensions and raised concerns over human rights in Nigeria's northern regions.
Nigeria faces a growing HIV/AIDS crisis, although the HIV/AIDS prevalence rate is relatively low compared to some Africa countries. After South Africa and India, Nigeria is estimated to have the third most people living with HIV/AIDS in the world: approximately 2.6 million people. Only about 10% those requiring antiretroviral drugs have access to such treatment, and estimates put the number of orphans due to AIDS at 1.2 million children. More than 50% of those living with HIV/AIDS in Nigeria are women and AIDS continues to be the leading cause of death in the country.
Nigeria also struggles with economic crises that undermine support for the government. Despite its vast oil wealth, problems of corruption, a flourishing black market, and mismanagement have left Nigeria one of the poorest countries in the world: about 35% of the population lives in extreme poverty. The Niger River Delta, a significant oil-producing region, has long been the site of conflict, in part over the need to redirect more oil revenues for the benefit of local people. Continuing poverty, crime, corruption, and environmental degradation in the Niger Delta region, along with the rise of a new, better-armed and organized militant group, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), threaten Nigeria's social stability and economic development. A wave of kidnappings and attacks on oil infrastructure in the region have cut Nigerian oil exports by as much as 40% In June 2009, a special meeting concerning the Niger Delta was confirmed, where the terms of an amnesty offered to militants, as well as the unveiling of President Yar'Adua's agenda for security and development in the Nigera Delta region will occur. However, it remains to be seen whether this tenuous conflict, which is an obstacle to foreign investment, can be brought to a peaceful resolution.
With respect to Nigeria's foreign debt, in a deal reached in 2005 with members of the Paris Club of rich country creditors, $18 billion of Nigeria's debt was written off. In exchange, Nigeria agreed to make a payment of $12 billion.This substantial payment siphoned government money away from other pressing domestic concerns, such as addressing extreme poverty and responding to the HIV/AIDS crisis. And, while its foreign debt has been cleared, external debt of approximately $9 billion remains. Finally, despite a GDP increase in 2007 and 2008 (due to increased crude oil prices), the global financial crisis will undoubtedly also factor into the country's financial concerns.
A long-term view of U.S.-Nigerian relations must confront fundamental issues of democracy, conflict resolution, resource use, the environment, and poverty. Nigeria's interests are in harnessing the country's wealth to contribute to development while building a stable democratic political system. U.S. long-term interests are the same. The U.S. should support fair, transparent and democratic election processes in future polls and provide financial and logistical assistance to independent election tribunals. In the Niger Delta, the U.S. should encourage Nigerian government negotiations with disaffected groups in the region, and push oil companies toward greater transparency about revenues and payments.
If the U.S. wants to help promote stability and development in Nigeria, Washington must look beyond Nigeria's oil and consider its people and their environment. Nigeria is currently experiencing its longest period of civilian rule since independence. While the country still faces significant challenges, with international support, this African superpower can make steady progress toward securing democracy, and achieving stability and prosperity for its people.