WASHINGTON — The acting president of Nigeria pledged Monday that his fractious, oil-rich nation will hold clean elections next year as he sought to ease concerns about a leadership crisis in his African nation.
The Nigerian leader, Goodluck Jonathan, also told an audience at the Council on Foreign Relations that a program to rehabilitate militants whose attacks have crippled oil production in the Niger Delta region was making progress, despite many skeptics.
"The issue of young men who have taken arms to fight the system … it's not something you can say you can even complete in the four years of this administration," Jonathan said. "But I can assure you that we will set up a solid base and have a clear focus and a program with timelines that you will see that we are progressing."
Jonathan, who was in Washington for an international summit on nuclear security, is running Nigeria while the health of President Umaru Yar'Adua remains a closely kept secret. Yar'Adua, who hasn't made a public appearance in several months, reportedly is stricken by a debilitating heart condition that's required multiple hospitalizations.
Yar'Adua's extended absence had raised fears of a constitutional crisis in Africa's most populous nation and the United States' fifth-largest supplier of crude oil. Since Jonathan, the vice president, took the reins in February, however, he's made a series of bold moves that suggest he won't be simply a caretaker, including appointing a new Cabinet.
Despite its staggering oil wealth, Nigeria, the bulwark of West Africa, is beset by an array of problems. Epidemic corruption, frequent outbreaks of Christian-Muslim tensions and a particularly messy 2007 election have badly eroded confidence in the government, domestically and internationally. Nuhu Ribadu, a former anti-corruption czar, has estimated that Nigerian officials stole or wasted some $440 billion in public funds from 1960 to 1999.
Jonathan met Sunday with President Barack Obama, who urged him to follow through on promises to strengthen the rule of law and the electoral system, White House officials said. In a visit last August, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton chided Nigerian officials for leadership failures.
"In every society it is difficult to say you can eradicate corruption," Jonathan said. "But we will set up the machinery to make sure we continue to reduce it."
Yet it isn't clear that Jonathan, a former environmental official who holds a doctorate in zoology, has enough time or political support to make real reforms. Nigeria is due to hold elections next year, and under the ruling party's unofficial rotation system the post is supposed to go to a candidate from the country's predominantly Muslim north. (Jonathan is a Christian from the south.)
Jonathan expressed confidence that Nigerian election officials can conduct a clean and transparent election despite allegations of widespread fraud and ballot-rigging in the 2007 vote, which brought Yar'Adua to office.
The government has been more interested in promoting its amnesty plan for militants in the Niger Delta, where analysts say oil production has climbed back to about 2 million barrels per day after having fallen to a 20-year low last year.
However, bomb blasts last month in the southern oil city of Warri, which killed at least one person, were a sign that some think that the government hasn't fulfilled its pledges to rehabilitate former militants and help them find jobs. The tensions could escalate as the country moves toward primary elections later this year, experts said.
"Because the primaries are coming up, this tends to create instability and insecurity," said Elizabeth Donnelly, Africa program manager at Chatham House, a British research center. "The bombings in Warri … that was the militants saying, 'We're still here; we still have the capacity to cause trouble.' "
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