Washington — Among the almost four dozen heads of state who have gathered here for this week's Nuclear Security Summit, Nigeria's acting president, Goodluck Jonathan, has been receiving a disproportionate share of high-level attention.
With a one-on-one with President Barack Obama Sunday and a Monday morning standing-room-only conference at the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), Jonathan, who took over from long-ailing President Umaru Yar'Adua in February and has less than a year to serve out his term, is nonetheless considered a key figure by Washington's influentials.
As Africa's most populous nation, West Africa's biggest economy by far, and the fifth most-important supplier of foreign oil consumed in the United States, Nigeria's stability has long been considered a priority by U.S. policy-makers.
In Jonathan, they see an opportunity not only to reverse the dangerous sense of drift that resulted from Yar'Adua's nearly three-month absence from the country for medical treatment in Saudi Arabia, but also to advance long-stalled reforms on a variety of fronts.
Those include setting the stage for credible elections currently scheduled for January, waging a more aggressive campaign against the pervasive corruption that has long afflicted Nigeria, laying the foundation for reforms in the country's ailing power sector, and, perhaps most urgently, shoring up an eight-month ceasefire with militants in part by jump-starting economic development in the oil-rich but poverty-stricken Niger Delta.
Both in his meeting with Obama, which he described as "warm and friendly", and at his CFR presentation, the fedora-hatted Jonathan said he did not see his job as simply that of a caretaker until the January elections.
Indeed, his decision last month to replace Yar'Adua's cabinet with his own appointees was widely viewed by Nigeria specialists here as both surprisingly bold and potentially very promising in terms of pursuing a reform agenda. The decision was also popular; his approval ratings shot up to some 80 percent, according to public-opinion polls.
"...(W)e are committed to ensuring that the remaining period of the administration is not a transitional period but one which we hope will one day be viewed as a watershed, a transformational time in our young democracy," he told the audience of several hundred at the Council.
"For now, our domestic focus must be on electoral reform, delivering peace dividends to the Niger Delta and the rest of the country, and standing strong on our resolve against corruption," he said.
Jonathan's visit, his first trip outside Nigeria since becoming acting president, came just days after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who visited Nigeria last August, and Foreign Secretary Yayale Ahmed inaugurated a U.S.-Nigeria Binational Commission, a forum designed to "strengthen and deepen the partnership" between the two nations.
The commission is to focus on four "key areas," Clinton said at the signing Apr. 6: good governance and transparency; regional cooperation and development, notably in the Niger Delta; promoting reform and investment in the energy sector in ways that could help the poorest sectors in the population; and food security and agricultural development.
Of the four, good governance, particularly in ensuring the integrity of next year's elections, and consolidating the fragile ceasefire in the Niger Delta will be "first out of the box", according to David Goldwyn, coordinator for international energy affairs at the State Department.
Washington has publicly urged Jonathan not reappoint the current head of Nigeria's Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Maurice Iwu, when his term ends in June.
Although Jonathan noted in his remarks to the Council that the perception that the Commission as presently constituted cannot conduct clean elections was "more psychological than real", he added that "before the 2011 elections, there will be a lot of changes in INEC (and) not just the chairman".
U.S. officials, including Goldwyn, have been particularly concerned about the situation in the Niger Delta, the source of Nigeria's oil for the more than half a century. The petroleum pumped from the Delta currently constitutes as much as 40 percent of Nigeria's gross domestic product (GDP) and about 75 percent of the government's income.
The endemic poverty and corruption of the region, whose physical environment has also been devastated by oil leaks and gas flaring, have created widespread discontent among the minority groups who live there.
That discontent, which is compounded by the lack of jobs or economic opportunity in the region, has spurred sometimes violent protests that in recent years have taken the form of attacks - mostly by militants associated with the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) - on pipelines and other oil facilities, as well as the abduction of employees of foreign oil companies, such as Royal Dutch Shell, Chevron, and Total, that have long been active there.
An early ceasefire agreement worked out in 2005 between the government of former President Olusegun Obasanjo and MEND broke down after just over a year. The result has been reductions in oil production - and the loss of billions of dollars in lost revenue to the government, as well as growing concern in Washington, which is highly dependent on foreign oil imports - in each of the years that followed.
Last year, Yar'Adua proposed a programme for militants that would offer them three-staged amnesty that included promises of cash, training and eventually jobs for militants who turned in their arms.
While the programme got off to a strong start in October, it bogged down after the president left for Saudi Arabia. By February, MEND announced it was ending the ceasefire and last month MEND claimed responsibility for two bombings in Warri.
Still, most analysts believe the amnesty remains salvageable, but that the government has to act quickly to get it back on track.
"Re-integration needs to be expedited," Dimieari Von Kemedi, a key official in Bayelsa State who has worked on conflict mediation in the Delta since 1997, said Tuesday at a presentation at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) here. He added that the next 18 months - longer than Jonathan will remain in office - will be critical in determining the amnesty's success or failure.
Jonathan, who grew up in the Delta and is a member of the same Ijaw ethnic group that dominates MEND, has endorsed the programme and stressed that follow-through by his government is a top priority.
"We have restructured the (programme's) management," he said Monday, "and we're trying to start...training (former militants) this month."
But, he added, "it takes a lot of time to train them, even for them to be in position to make a living... So it's not something you can say you can even complete in a four-year administration. But I can assure you that we've set up a solid base, and I have a clear focus on the programme, with timelines, (so) you'll see that we are progressing."
Jim Lobe's blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at http://www.ips.org/blog/jimlobe/.