Why The Latest Nigerian Unrest Should Matter More

If the Obama administration is really interested in conducting America's foreign relations differently, it should take a deep seated interest in the situation in Nigeria right now.

The New York Times reported Nigerian security forces on Thursday confirmed the death of the leader of a fundamentalist Islamic sect in the city of Maiduguri, apparently ending a fierce five-day campaign against the group that may have left hundreds dead across northern Nigeria.

The militant group led by Mohammed Yusuf, known as Boko Haram or Taliban, wants to overthrow the Nigerian government and impose a strict version of Islamic law. It has been blamed for days of violent unrest in which hundreds of people died in clashes between his followers and security forces.

A military spokesman would not say exactly how Yusuf was killed, though it has been widely reported that he was killed after being captured. But in an interview with the BBC's Network Africa, the Nigerian Information Minister Dora Akunyili said while she was concerned about the death and that the government would find out "exactly what happened," Yusuf's demise was "positive" for Nigeria.

The State Department has not commented on the Nigerian situation so far, but such alleged police violence would likely raise tricky questions when Secretary Clinton visits next week, as part of her seven-nation African swing that begins Aug. 5 in Kenya at the 8th U.S. - Sub-Saharan Africa Trade and Economic Cooperation Forum.

She intends to "emphasize Africa as a place of opportunity, built on an ethic of responsibility" on this trip, but this latest issue would cast some fundamental doubt on whether she can or should even do that in Nigeria. After Barack Obama's choice to make Ghana his "first" presidential stop has been seen as a slight to Nigeria's lack of democratic progress and good governance, this would further undermine Nigeria's claim as a regional power.

According to U.S. State Department data, Nigeria is the most populous nation in West Africa and accounts for half of the region's population. Its economy is heavily dependent on its oil exports, of which 46 percent are shipped to the U.S., accounting for 11 percent of America's oil supply and making Nigeria America's fifth largest oil supplier. Journalists and scholars such as Karl Meier have warned in the past that any Nigerian implosion would have severe regional implications.

But any "new" approach in foreign policy should also be guided by a more ethical premise. Where foreign policy has too often been guided by mainly American self interest in the past, we should now balance that out more by seeking out the interests of our allies and approaching any resolution from a posture of enlightened self interest. Hegemony is a balance between coercion and consent and between chastising and cajoling -- we need to bump up the consent aspect of the equation by helping our allies seek solutions to their own problems.

And Secretary Clinton and President Obama could do no better than to condemn any police brutality that Nigerians have come to expect but at the same time, encourage President Umaru Yar'Adua to press on with reforms to deal better with the ethno-religious and community strife that has plagued the country since a civilian Nigerian government took its place barely 10 years ago.