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Nigeria's President Visits White House For Talks On Extremists

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Nigeria's new president is on his first official visit to the U.S. this week. President Muhammadu Buhari is meeting President Obama at the White House today. But back home, the Nigerian leader has a long and difficult to-do list. The challenges include defeating the extremist group Boko Haram and tackling corruption in a country famous for it. NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton joined us for more. Good morning.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Greetings.

MONTAGNE: Can we begin, Ofeibea, with a very simple question, why is this visit from the president of Nigeria, at this moment in time, important to the U.S.?

QUIST-ARCTON: Because Nigeria is Africa's giant. It's the most populous nation on the continent. It's the leading economy. It's Africa's top oil-exporting country. It is the most important country in Africa and a top ally for the U.S. That's why President Muhammadu Buhari's visit to the U.S. is so important and so early into his first term as president.

MONTAGNE: Right, he has been in office less than 100 days. Can you, at this point, assess President Buhari's performance?

QUIST-ARCTON: It's a tough job. Anyone who wants to be leader of Nigeria, good luck. He's dealing with an insurgency, extremist Boko Haram who have been wreaking havoc in the northeast for the past five years or so. He says that the coffers have been left empty by the outgoing administration of President Goodluck Jonathan. And he hasn't even appointed a Cabinet yet because he says corruption is one of the leading causes of Nigeria's woes. So he wants to appoint an incorruptible Cabinet, ministers who are top-drawer, and that takes time.

MONTAGNE: And of course that mass abduction of the boarding school girls by Boko Haram last year, it shocked the world, brought a lot of attention to this militant insurgency. What is happening on that front?

QUIST-ARCTON: Renee, there's been a concerted push, a regional push by the Nigerian army, as well as its neighbors in Chad, Niger and Cameroon against Boko Haram. And they have managed to unseat them and drive them out of the caliphate that the insurgent said they had established. But Boko Haram is still able to attack at will, bombing attacks and deadly bombing attacks in different parts of northeastern Nigeria, so it certainly is not a thing of the past.

MONTAGNE: Of course there's another problem The reputation of the Nigerian military is a huge issue. Amnesty International has alleged that it's responsible for gross abuses against civilians. How does that fit into all of this?

QUIST-ARCTON: And indeed that was one of the issues between the Nigerian government - the outgoing Nigerian administration and the White House. The fact that the Nigerian government said that weapons, heavy weaponry, that it had needed to battle Boko Haram had been blocked by Washington. Now, in the search for the missing girls, Washington sent about 50 to 80 advisers to try and help the Nigerians with intelligence. They withdrew very quietly. Nigeria almost accused the U.S. of not helping by not allowing the Israelis to sell them weaponry that they felt would be the equivalent of what Boko Haram was using - really sophisticated weaponry to try and end the insurgency. It looks as though the tension, though, has eased, and now of course it's a new chapter between President Buhari and President Obama.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, thank you very much.

QUIST-ARCTON: Always a pleasure. Thank you.

MONTAGNE: And Ofeibea of course covers Africa for NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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