Howard Jeter

Ambassador Howard Jeter addressed the university community yesterday in a speech titled, “Domestic Challenges and Regional Responsibilities in Nigeria.” Jeter touched on many of Nigeria’s obstacles to achieving a democracy, including an ineffective legislature, massive oil theft, corruption, poverty, crime, the AIDS epidemic and military professionalism.

One of the most important of these challenges is the legitimacy of political groups and the stability of elections, Jeter said. After the last presidential election, many of the minority parties spoke out and demonstrated against the election. They claimed it was filled with fraud and ballot-stuffing, creating a situation where there was no loyal opposition party.

If the minority parties do not view the majority government as legitimate, this could prove very problematic since it could lead to either legislative stagnation or the kidnapping and assassination of political leaders, Jeter said.

Jeter also called for the United States to help the country. “The U.S. has a large role to play [in military professionalism],” Jeter said. “This is necessary for the military to enforce the constitution and obey civilian rule.”

Several professors agreed with Jeter’s concern for the country’s current situation. “Nigeria faces a number of significant challenges domestically,” Scott Taylor, assistant professor in the African Studies Department, said. “Governed by a military regime since 1983, Nigeria completed only its second civilian elections this spring. These were marred by a number of significant irregularities and mediocre turnout levels. There was more than passing concern among domestic and international observers of the Nigerian scene that disputes about the election could lead to widespread violence and instability. By and large, this did not happen. But Nigeria’s political economy remains extremely fragile.”

Others took a more optimistic view of the elections.

“Ambassador Jeter has served the United States at critical moments in democratic transitions across Africa and none was more important for the region than the recent electoral events in Nigeria,” Robert E. Henderson, Dean of Fellows at the Center for the Study of Presidency, said.

The events leading up to the free elections show great potential for the democracy, since much was overcome by the Nigerians to obtain them, Director of the African Studies department Gwendolyn ikell said.

“Many of us remember the period when Nigeria’s progress was stymied by the brutal military dictatorship of Sani Abacha, and the assassination of the Ogoni 10 in 1995. But Nigeria recovered and went to elections that brought President Obasanjo to office in 1998,” Mikell said. “Under Ambassador Jeter’s watch, we have begun to work with Nigeria to create policies that would strengthen democracy in that country, to help with trade and economic diversification and to address some of the historical tensions related to resource inequities within different parts of the country.”

Taylor related the concerns about Nigerian democracy to the recent crisis in Liberia. “Nigeria has always played a significant role in the West African region,” he said. “Its role in sending peacekeepers to Liberia earlier this year and helping to broker the exile of former Liberian strongman president Charles Taylor has been an essential element in restoring regional stability.”

Prior to being appointed Ambassador in June 2001, Jeter held a variety of posts including Deputy Assistant Secretary for African Affairs from June 1999 to July 2000 and Deputy Chief of Mission in Namibia from Sept. 1990 to July 1993. He also acted as Charge d’Affaires following the departure of the incumbent ambassador in Sept. 1992. The event was sponsored by the African Studies Program.

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