The failed attempt on December 25, 2009 by the young Nigerian, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, to detonate hidden explosives on a flight to Detroit created an additional layer of complexity for U.S. relations with Africa's most populous nation and leading oil producer. Managing those ties day to day is the job of Robin Renee Sanders, the U.S. ambassador to Nigeria. Sanders is a career foreign service officer who was appointed to the post by President George W. Bush in late 2007 and reappointed by President Obama last year. She previously served as U.S. ambassador to the Republic of the Congo (Brazzaville) and on the staff of the National Security Council. The Abdulmutallab incident led the U.S. government to add Nigeria to the 'country of interest' list, which resulted in increased scrutiny of Nigerians flying to the United States and angered many Nigerians who felt their country was being unfairly punished.
This week, the U.S. administration took what Secretary of State Hilary Clinton called a "concrete step forward that will strengthen and deepen the partnership between our two nations" with the launch in Washington, DC of the U.S.-Nigeria Binational Commission. The high-level forum includes working groups on good governance, transparency and integrity; energy and investment; food security and agriculture; and Niger delta and regional security cooperation. Next week, Nigeria's acting president, Goodluck Jonathan, is scheduled to visit Washington to take part in the Nuclear Security Summit at the White House, where he is also expected to have talks with President Barack Obama.
Prior to departing for Washington to take part in the launch, Sanders, in her first interview since the December incident, spoke with AllAfrica's Reed Kramer about the current state of relations between the two nations. Excerpts follow:
Acting President Jonathan has asked President Obama for a reconsideration of the classification of Nigeria as a 'country of interest' with regard to terrorism. Has Nigeria taken steps that would assist in that regard?
The country-of-interest process is an ongoing inter-agency review here and in Washington. One of the things that Nigeria has done is sign an air marshal agreement with the United States. We see that as a step in the right direction. Also, Nigeria does not have counter-terrorism legislation. We've been in dialogue with them on that. They are in the process of installing body scanners around the various airports in Nigeria. We worked with them on body scanners, and even before the incident of December 25 we had installed five scanners at their international airports in partnership with them. They're installing additional scanners and training their personnel to use them.
How do you assess the security situation in Nigeria now?
The Nigerian government is realizing they are not immune to the global terrorist threat, and it is working hard with us in sharing information and having dialogue on these global threats. We have a good cooperative relationship.
How will the Binational Commission contribute to improved relations between the United States and Nigeria?
The secretary of state when she was here in August highlighted a new strategic framework. With the commission, we are moving that forward in a more formal manner where we have a working dialogue on issues ranging from democracy and good government to anti-corruption and credible elections.
What is your view of how the Nigerian government is functioning?
There's a general sense that Nigeria remains fragile. It is an uncertain environment right now, but there have been some indications over the last couple of weeks that give us hope that things might be moving in the right direction. We want Nigeria to have credible elections, put a framework in place to fight corruption, put a framework in place to strengthen its democracy. These are paramount issues moving forward. We hear that from Nigerians all across the country. They want to believe in elections; they want to have a transparent government; they want to have institutions that can propel the country's economy and political system forward. With a new cabinet in place, we are hoping that these issues can be addressed in a coherent and cohesive fashion with ministers that are capable, diligent and forthright in their efforts to be representative of the Nigerian people.
Has there been any progress in preparing for elections?
We noted that the unedited election reform committee report recently went forward to the national assembly. The committee report has been edited and presented in many forms, edited. We were delighted to hear that the acting president finally sent that report to the national assembly unedited. Action on election reform is now in the hands of the national legislature. The U.S. and the United Kingdom jointly funded an independent electoral assessment early this year at the request of the Nigerian government, and that's all part of this process of looking at election reforms and committing to credible elections.
In my conversation with the acting president, he's very clear that one of the things he wants to do is to make sure that the voices of the Nigerian people are heard and credible elections are held here in Nigeria. Moving the unedited report to the national assembly is certainly a step in the right direction. Of course, there are other needed steps. We would like to see an Independent National Electoral Commission that is really independent and really transparent, which is key to its ability to hold elections that people can believe in. This was not the case in 2007.
What has been the reaction to recent outbreaks of violence in the north and what additional action should the Nigerian government take to avoid future problems?
We've just had [a visit] by the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom [a U.S. government entity whose bipartisan members are appointed by congress and the president].
They were engaged with a cross-section of interlocutors. I attended those meetings, and it was interesting to see the seriousness with which elements of the government are responding. Arrests have been made, which is a departure from the past in terms of how quickly they've done that.
Interfaith leaders here are engaged in addressing the crosscutting issues that seem to encourage the cycle of violence in the Jos area every couple of months. There's a myriad of challenges which the interfaith leaders are trying to address – economic and land issues, religious, sectarian and ethnic issues. I know it often gets boiled down to one or two issues, but there is a broad spectrum of problems that can spark violence. We all want to see the fundamental issues that keep causing these cycles of violence addressed.
The international community, including the United States, has offered humanitarian assistance. If we receive an official response from the Nigerian government, we are prepared to do that, particularly with regard to shelter and the needs that have come out of the violence there. We are working with number of partners in the Jos area to address some of those issues. We are in dialogue constantly with faith leaders to be supportive of their actions to address the issues.
What is your assessment of the Nigerian economy at this time and how that is impacting the country?
Nigeria needs to address corruption issues in a more comprehensive fashion. We do see the ongoing banking reforms as a step in the right direction. We recognize that several of the banks' leadership took advantage of the shareholders, and we hope that those individuals are brought to justice. That should help to underscore that corruption will not be the order of the day.
Looking at the indicators for economic growth, Nigeria is not doing too badly, given the global economic situation. Part of that has to do with the banking sector reforms. There has been some growth outside the oil sector that has helped Nigeria as well, including a slight increase in exports to the United States of products under the African Growth and Opportunities Act. So we see that the macroeconomic policy framework is in place and is making a difference even in this very difficult global financial environment. I'm not saying that it's perfect. I am saying that there are some reforms that are ongoing that we think are the right reforms to do, particularly in the banking sector.
What about situation in the Delta region – the oil-producing area in Nigeria?
The amnesty the ailing president put in place last year has pretty much held up until recently. We've been in dialogue with the Nigeria government about moving forward so that they don't have a roll-back on the amnesty dividends. The acting president has met with militant leaders, which we're hoping is an indication that efforts have been restarted to not only keep the amnesty but to try to broaden that to re-integration and rehabilitation of the young men and women that were active in militancy so that the Delta can have a future that is peaceful, stable, and create an environment for education and development.
Will Nigeria, which currently accounts for 15 percent of U.S. petroleum imports, continue to be a reliable supplier of oil to the United States?
Yes. Until there's a comprehensive peace environment in Nigeria that's longstanding, there will always be ups and downs on security challenges. But I think that Nigeria will remain a reliable partner in that area.
But I want to say something broader than that. There's tremendous potential for Nigeria, not just as a strategic oil partner with the United States. Eighty percent or more of its population is agriculture-based, and Nigeria has the potential to feed itself and to be an exporter of agricultural products. If you think of Nigeria as an emerging market, as I do, there are a number of other areas for potential growth - from infrastructure development to information science and technology, IT. I don't want us to lose sight of that.
Do you see increased interest on the part of American and other foreign investors in those potential areas of growth in the Nigerian economy?
Yes, particularly in IT and agriculture. My personal focus is on agriculture. I've traveled around and seen the potential in that sector. We have a food security program of about 25 million dollars. [One aspect] is a market program, which has helped with the rural-to-urban movement of agricultural products. [It] is reaching 10,000 or more farmers, increasing yields of key crops such as yams and cassava [and] providing jobs in the agro-business sector.
We have a strategic agriculture forum once a year in partnership with a number of private sector institutions to look at developing agriculture infrastructure and agro-business, so that the bulk of the population can change the paradigm of their lives by ensuring that they have income not only for their families but also to introduce entrepreneurship into their communities and into the agriculture sector.
We see more and more American investors moving into the agriculture sector and into the IT sector, and we're encouraged by that. But I would also like to say that we don't have enough Americans here. This is a dynamic and creative environment. The emerging market potential here for American investors is tremendous, and we need to encourage many more Americans to come here and look at these sectors as potential areas of growth for their own businesses.
Whatever the country's potential, would you agree that Nigeria's negative image discourages investment?
Clearly, the image issue is something that Nigerians grapple with all the time. We as partners can work with them on some of those issues, but we can't want more for Nigeria than Nigeria wants for itself. We want to see a stable and prosperous and democratic Nigeria with credible elections, but we can't want that more than Nigeria wants it for itself. We have heard from Nigerians that they want a stable environment, they want a prosperous nation, they want investment. But you're absolutely right; the framework has to be there to make that happen.
We consider Nigeria an extraordinary friend of the United States of America and the American people. We want to see Nigeria succeed.