Washington — Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson affirmed the United States' support for "a stable and prosperous Nigeria" while acknowledging significant remaining challenges to its peace and economic development in testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee July 10.
The hearing, chaired by Representative Christopher Smith (Republican from New Jersey), examined the political, economic and social problems plaguing the country.
"Nigeria faces significant challenges," Carson said. "But it is not going to collapse, implode or go away. I believe that the forces holding Nigeria together are much stronger than those that might seek to pull it apart."
With a population of 160 million, Nigeria is Africa's most populous nation and home to the sixth-largest Muslim population in the world. It is also the United States' largest trading partner in Africa and the second-largest recipient of American direct private sector investment.
Nigeria is well placed to achieve great economic growth, Carson said, with its large and talented professional class, an abundance of natural resources and a strategic location along the West African coast, but it must first begin to resolve the host of obstacles in its way.
Though Nigeria's economy is the largest in West Africa, contributing more than 50 percent of the region's gross domestic product, almost 100 million Nigerians live on less than $1 a day, Carson said. Governmental neglect over the decades has stunted the development of health, education and transportation infrastructure, leaving Nigerians without widespread access to care facilities and transportation. Nearly a million Nigerian children die before their fifth birthday, and only about half of the population has access to electricity.
The country's lack of social services not only makes life difficult for ordinary Nigerians, but also feeds the public perception that Nigeria's poverty is a consequence of governmental corruption and abuse.
"The inability of the government to address the needs of the people, to grow the economy and to generate jobs has generated a sense of hopelessness among many," Carson said. "It also helps feed a popular narrative among some that the government simply does not care."
Frustrations with the government are ample fodder for Boko Haram, a radical Islamist group that has claimed responsibility for numerous violent attacks on Westerners, the government and Nigerian civilians in the past year. The group, which maintains ties to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), promotes an anti-Western agenda and attempts to instigate ethnic and religious violence by bombing churches in the northern part of the country.
The United States government recently designated three of Boko Haram's most dangerous leaders, Abubakar Shekau, Khalid al-Barnawi and Abubakar Adam Kambar, as specially designated global terrorists.
"Boko Haram thrives because of social and economic problems in the north that the government must find a way of addressing," Carson said. "A coordinated government effort to provide responsible, accountable governance to all Nigerians while creating opportunities for economic growth will diminish the political space in which Boko Haram operates."
The United States has assisted the Nigerian government in its attempt to diminish Boko Haram's influence by providing advice, forensics training and instruction in such subjects as investigative procedure and improvised explosive device prevention, he said.
But "security efforts aimed at containing Boko Haram's violence must avoid excessive violence and human rights abuses and make better use of police and intelligence services to identify, to arrest and to prosecute those responsible for Boko Haram's violent acts," Carson emphasized.
Carson also warned of the alarming consequences of illegal oil bunkering in the Niger Delta region, which costs the Nigerian government almost 20 percent in potential revenue every day. Oil exports account for about 85 percent of government revenue. The Niger Delta region also suffers from severe environmental damage from repeated oil spills.
While Nigeria's future is ultimately in the hands of its leaders, the United States will continue to assist the country in its steps toward important political and economic reforms, Carson said.
'We here in Washington are committed to working with them in partnership to advance their goals of democracy, development, respect for human rights, stability, peace and greater opportunity for all of that country's citizens," he said.
Much bilateral cooperation occurs through the meetings of the U.S.-Nigerian Binational Commission (BNC), which brings together senior officials from both countries to work together on such issues as governance, energy, agriculture and regional security cooperation. Launched in 2010, the BNC has met more than 10 times. The most recent meeting took place June 4-5 in Washington.