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Special Event

President Clinton Delivers Remarks in Nigeria

Aired August 26, 2000 - 8:55 a.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: As promised just before the break, remarks have begun in Abuja, Nigeria. The two presidents there, you see them in the foreground. President Obasanjo just began just a few moments ago. Let's listen in.

OLUSEGUN OBASANJO, PRESIDENT OF NIGERIA: ... and under the auspices of the U.N. the whole world. Needless to say that this goes for the United States by virtue of her status as the number one world power today. President Clinton has only just begun his visit. The sign so far is that it will be a memorable one and we wish you a very pleasant stay in our midst. We welcome you once again.

WILLIAM J. CLINTON, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: President Obasanjo, members of the Nigerian government, members of the press, I think I can say on behalf of the members of the United States Congress who are here and the members of the American delegation we are delighted to be in Nigeria.

Two years ago I came to Africa to begin building a new partnership between this continent and the United States, one in which Americans look upon Africa not simply as a continent with problems, but also as the continent which presents the world's next great opportunity to advance the cause of peace, justice and prosperity.

When I came here two years ago, one of the biggest obstacles to a new relationship with the entire continent was the fact that the democratic hopes of Nigeria's people were being smothered by military misrule and corruption, with your finest leaders being killed, banished or, in the case of President Obasanjo, forced to languish in prison.

My greatest hope then was that some day I could come to Africa again to visit a Nigeria worthy of its people's dreams. Thanks to President Obasanjo and the people of Nigeria, I have thigh honor today to visit the new Nigeria and to pledge America's support for the most important democratic transition in Africa since the fall of apartheid.

All of us in the American delegation know that after so many years of despair and plunder, your journey has not been easy. But we are also committed to working with the people of Nigeria to help build stronger institutions, improve educate, fight disease, crime and corruption, ease the burden of debt and promote trade and investment in a way that brings more of the benefits of prosperity to people who have embraced democracy. We are rebuilding ties severed during the years of dictatorship. I am very happy that last week the first direct flight since 1993 left Muritala Mohammed Airport for the United States. Today we have signed our first open skies agreement.

With patience and perseverance, Nigeria can answer the challenge your president issued in his inauguration two years ago, a speech I got up very early in the morning in the United States to watch. I remember that he said, "Let us rise as one to face the tasks ahead and turn this daunting scene into a new dawn."

With one fifth of Africa's people and vast human and natural resources, a revitalized Nigeria can be the economic and political anchor of West Africa and a leader of the continent. We need your continued leadership in the struggle for peace. I am pleased we have begun this week to help to train and equip the first of five Nigerian battalions preparing for service in Sierra Leone.

We also need your continued leadership in the struggle against poverty and infectious disease, especially AIDS. And I thank President Obasanjo for his offer to host an AIDS summit in Nigeria next year.

Finally, we need Nigeria to keep leading by example as a successful democracy and a nation that has managed, despite many Republicans of repression and strife, to prove that for democracies, our diversity can be our greatest strength.

These are just some of the issues we discussed today. Later, I will have the honor of speaking to the Nigerian parliament and I will speak in greater detail about the challenges ahead and the promise of our growing partnership. But let me just say I begin this visit with enormous admiration for the progress you have made and the highest hopes for the progress you will make in the future and the depth that our partnership will assume.

Thank you, again, Mr. President, for making us all feel so welcome.

OBASANJO: We will now take questions from the members of the media here. I think we'll (UNINTELLIGIBLE) to our guests first.

(UNINTELLIGIBLE)?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (UNINTELLIGIBLE), you are going to meet next week...

OBASANJO: You broke the first rule. I said you should be seated.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Oh, I'm sorry, sorry. I got excited.

Mr. President, you're going to meet next week with President Mubarak of Egypt. Could you give us an idea of what you're going to discuss with him, and whether this portends another Mideast peace summit? And President Obasanjo, I'd also like to have your perspectives on these efforts to reach peace in the Middle East.

CLINTON: Well, let me say, first of all, I think it's inconceivable that we could have a peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians without the support of President Mubarak. As you know, when I leave here, I'm going to Tanzania to support President Mandela and the peace process that he has been working on in Barundi. And then we have to make a refueling stop on our way home.

I had hoped to see President Mubarak at the United Nations summit, which will be at the end of the first week of September. But he can't come to that. And so I -- we were having one of our regular telephone conversations the other day, and decided that since he would not be in New York, that I ought to refuel in Cairo, and we ought to reconnoiter on the peace process.

I don't think you should read too much into it, other than that we are working with a sense of urgency, given the timetable the parties have set for themselves. And we're -- we don't underestimate the continuing difficulties. But I'm pleased they're still working, and working under enormous pressures.

OBASANJO: Well, I must take this opportunity to commend the efforts of President Clinton in the Middle East peace. I believe that the fact that the door is not completely closed, and the fact that the areas where, in fact, a few years back, one would have thought there would be no advancement at all whether Jerusalem could be negotiated on, is now an issue that can be put on the table to be negotiated.

I believe that should give all of us some hope, and as President Clinton just said, all that should be -- all the people that should be involved must be engaged to be involved. And we shall never be tired until we achieve success. And I believe success will be achieved. I have no doubt.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you, sir. (UNINTELLIGIBLE), (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Your excellencies, my name is (UNINTELLIGIBLE) of Nigeria.

President Clinton's attitude to Africa and the poorer nations of the world is very well known, he has sympathy for those nations. But America does not make up the West, only America doesn't. Now at the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) meeting in Havana in April, a position was adopted on the issue of this strangulating debt burden in the poor countries of the world.

Now President Obasanjo has determined of the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) was given the mandate to present that position to the G8 at the July Okinawa summit. Both President Obasanjo and stakeholders in that issue came out of that summit expressing disappointment at the lack of concrete commitment on the issue by the richest nations of the world.

Are there any indications that (OFF-MIKE) today with a key member of the G8 would open up new vistas in the issue of debt cancellation for the poor countries of the world? And America is perhaps the strongest supporter of democracy around the world, and we know that democracy stands very little chance in the face of the huge debt burden. What is the way out?

CLINTON: Well, let me say, first of all, what I believe the G8 was saying, and you may know that I, because of other commitments and because of the Middle East peace process, unfortunately had to miss the first day of the G8 summit, and therefore I missed the president's presentation.

At Cologne, Germany, we got the G8 to make a commitment to a debt relief program for the poorest countries in the world, and we had some problems implementing it. But the basic idea, I think, was sound, which was that we should give debt forgiveness in return for a commitment to spend the freed-up resources on human development and to have a responsible economic reform program.

That was basically the agreement. I strongly support that, and I would favor expanding the number of eligible nations once we've actually taken them in some proper order. Our Congress has before it now legislation that would pay America's share of the debt relief for the countries that have qualified under the program that the G8 adopted.

My own view is that the G8 would be willing to go beyond those 24 countries as long as it was clear that there was a commitment to economic reform and a commitment to democracy and a commitment to use all the savings for human development purposes, not for military purposes or other purposes that were inconsistent with the long-term interests of the countries.

But I think that the real issue is not whether they can afford the debt relief. In most of these countries, they actually have to budget the debt relief even if they're not going to get repaid. And to be fair, the United States does not have the same dollar stake in most of these nations, in the multilateral forums, as some other countries do.

So even -- so it is a little more difficult for them than it is for us. And I think that you are seeing the beginning of a process that I believe will continue, since I believe that we'll have more countries doing what Nigeria's doing, embracing democracy, having a program with the IMF, a commitment to economic reform, that will commend itself to the creditor countries of the world for debt relief. And I think that you will -- it will happen.

But you're right, we have been in the forefront of pushing this, but to be fair to the other countries, the relative size of the American economy makes our -- makes it easier for us to do than for some of these other countries.

And the real problem is not the money itself, because many of them don't expect to be repaid. The real problem is that they all have budget rules like we do that require them to budget that in their annual budgets, the forgiveness of debt, just as they budget for education or health care or defense or anything else, even though it's arguably an unnecessary thing, since they don't expect to get the money back from the poorest countries.

But you need to understand that's the political problem that a lot of these leaders have. And since the European countries and Japan have a bigger percentage of their income tied up in debt than we do, it's a little more difficult for them to do. I think we have moved them in the right direction, and I think Nigeria in particular and other countries following behind will find a much more ready response.

I think that what happened in Cologne, the call of His Holiness, the pope, and others for debt relief in the millennial year will lead to a process that I expect to play out over the next few years that I believe will result in significantly greater debt relief than we have seen, as long as it's coupled to maintenance of democracy, economic reform and honest economies, and using the savings from debt relief for the real human benefits and needs of the people in the affected countries.

OBASANJO: Thank you, sir.

We are running far behind time. We'll take on question on both sides now. Yes, (UNINTELLIGIBLE)?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Mr. President, did you urge President Obasanjo to reduce -- to work within OPEC to reduce oil prices, and did you offer him any commitment on rescheduling or writing off the debt of Nigeria?

And President Obasanjo, I just wondered if you can give me your views on the current oil situation.

CLINTON: Well, I'll -- let me answer the debt question first, since it sort of follows up on the previous question.

I reaffirmed the commitment that I had previously made to the president that, first of all, the United States would do all we could to get the entire Paris Club to do what the G8 has now agreed to do and have a generous debt rescheduling, which will alleviate a lot -- the cash flow requirements, at least, for Nigeria in the short run.

And that now that there was an IMF program in place, once there was enough experience with this IMF program that we could argue to the other creditor nations that have a larger, as I said to the previous questioner, the gentleman before, that these other nations that have a bigger share of the debt than we do, that Nigeria has shown a commitment to economic reform as well as a commitment to democracy, that I would support debt relief for them, that I thought they ought to have some debt relief in return for showing that they've got a commitment to long-term political and economic reform.

And that's the position I've had for some time now.

On the oil prices, I -- we talked about that, and Nigeria, of course, does not have the capacity to change the prices because they're pretty well producing at full capacity already, so I asked the president to do whatever he could to encourage others to increase production enough to have the impact that OPEC voted to have at the last meeting.

At the last meeting, they voted for production levels that they felt would bring the price back closer to its historic average, somewhere in the mid-20s. And that has not worked out, for a number of reasons. And so I asked him to do what he could in that regard.

OBASANJO: Well, I have always maintained that excessive high price of oil is neither good for the oil producers nor for the oil consumers, particularly developing oil consumers. Neither is excessive low price of oil, neither is it good for the oil producers nor the oil consumers, because you need certain amount of stability.

I believe that that stability will be there when the OPEC brought in the mechanism to trigger off if oil is -- the oil price is above certain price level, to automatically go in and produce more. And if it's below certain level, to automatically go in and withdraw from the production.

Well, as President Clinton said, what has taken place so far has not worked. The OPEC we have a summit meeting in Venezuela next month, and the price of oil will be one of the major issues to be discussed. And I will, by the grace of God, be at that meeting.

And we will work to bring an elemental stability into the price of oil. It is in the interests of all concerned that that should happen.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you, sir, (UNINTELLIGIBLE), (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: My question is to President Clinton. It concerns the U.S. visa policy on Nigerians. The policy has so far been very discriminatory and restrictive, in fact, even arbitrary. You find government officials on legitimate (UNINTELLIGIBLE) visas. Nigerians who have legitimate business concerns are also denied visas to the United States.

I'm sure you will agree with me that this kind of policy will not engender the kind of cooperation and integration which you believe your visit portends. So what, in concrete terms, is your government going to do to effect a positive change in this direction?

And the second question is, will the United States support Nigeria's bid for a permanent U.N. Security Council seat?

Thank you.

CLINTON: Well, let me answer the first question first. I'm very concerned about some of the problems we've had in getting visas to Nigerians who have legitimate interests in coming to the United States and should have a perfect right to do so.

If I might say something in defense of the people who have to issue the visas, because of the worldwide concern that has nothing to do with Nigeria about terrorism and other problems, they are -- they've been given instructions to bend over backwards to make sure that all the documents of anybody from any country applying for a visa are in perfect order.

For -- because of the -- a lot of developments here over the last several years, that's not always possible. And so what we've got to do is go back and take a hard look at this situation as it affects Nigeria, because we acknowledge that there are many Nigerians who have tried to come to the United States, who should have been able to come and therefore should have been able to get visas, who haven't been.

And we have to try to find a way to solve that consistent with our law. And I wish I had an answer for you today, but frankly, I was not aware of the dimensions of the problem until I was preparing to come here and preparing for my visit. And so I don't have a solution today, but I can -- I'll make you a commitment that I -- we will work on it, and we will try to work this out. Because I'm quite concerned about it.

When I saw the numbers and I saw the small percentage of those who had applied who had been approved, and it was obvious that many, many more had legitimate interests, perfectly legitimate interests, in coming to the United States, I realized we had to do something, and we're going to work with your government and try to work it out.

O'BRIEN: Presidents Clinton and Obasanjo in Abuja, Nigeria, addressing reporters as well as a throng there after signing some rather, I guess, somewhat ceremonial documents, open skies agreements, that sort of thing.

Let's turn now to John King, our White House correspondent traveling with the president on the line now from Abuja.

John sort of went through the hot list of U.S.-Nigerian issues, key among them, from the Nigerian perspective, would be relief or at least a rescheduling of that huge $30 billion debt. That's a big issue, isn't it?

JOHN KING, CNN CORRESPONDENT (on telephone): That's right, it's a big issue, especially now as oil prices have gone up and the income of the country has grown somewhat. The complaint is from the Nigerian side that they cannot do enough to invest in education, to recreate a transportation infrastructure, a public health infrastructure, because so much of that money is committed to debt relief.

Upbeat talk from the president, he said that he was happy to see the democratic reforms here, but no immediate answers, the president saying that he would support the United States forgiving its debt. Most of the debt, however, held by Japan and the European countries. It's a group known as the Paris Club. The president saying before he could go to them and urge them to forgive the debt, he needs to see how Nigeria reacts to a new installment, an economic reform program with the International Monetary Fund.

So it appears to be at least months away before the president could say firmly that he is prepared now to seek debt relief. But he did sound a hopeful note that in the future he believes he will be able to.

O'BRIEN: And meanwhile, those payments are a bit onerous, I suspect, on the Nigerian government.

Now, on to Middle East peace. The president downplaying a little bit that last-minute, I guess you could call it, visit to Hosni Mubarak in Cairo.

KING: Downplaying because of the experience in Camp David, when he believed he was pretty close to an agreement, only to see it collapse because of the dispute over Jerusalem. Mr. Clinton, before leaving Washington, spoke not only to Mr. Mubarak but also to the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Barak.

One of the things they wanted during the Camp David talks was for President Mubarak, King Abdullah of Jordan, other Arab leaders to pressure Yasser Arafat a little and to promise him public support if he would compromise on Jerusalem. The United States thought Mr. Arafat was a bit inflexible at the Camp David summit, but they also understand that he is negotiating not only for the Palestinians but for the other Arab nations as well because of the religious and cultural stakes of Jerusalem.

So the presidents (UNINTELLIGIBLE) they were designed to see exactly where President Mubarak is, as that September 13 deadline fast approaches. There's been some talk of Mr. Clinton bringing in the Palestinians and the Israelis back to Washington or back to somewhere in the United States for a signing ceremony. The president does not want to do that unless he is 99.9 percent certain that there will indeed be an agreement.

So this stop in Cairo a key stop as he tries to see how much progress they have made since the summit collapsed.

O'BRIEN: And Egypt always a linchpin in all these discussions.

KING: Absolutely so, especially in the sense of Jerusalem and promising Mr. Arafat that if he makes concessions, that he will be supported throughout the Arab world. There's a question as to whether the Hamas element of the Palestinians would support any peace with Israel, let alone a compromise on, say, West Jerusalem or giving up any more land to Israel on the West Bank.

So a very delicate political situation. Most of the attention during the Camp David was on Mr. Barak's political situation because of the vote of no confidence that he survived in the Knesset. But Mr. Arafat, very delicate position as well, and this is a stop designed to show that the -- that Mr. Arafat -- that if there are key decisions to make as that deadline approaches, that other Arab leaders will support him, Mr. Mubarak obviously the biggest among them, given Egypt's historic going first in making a peace agreement with Israel.

O'BRIEN: CNN's John King with the president in Abuja, Nigeria.

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