WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States pressed Nigeria's caretaker president on Tuesday to revamp the oil giant's tattered election machinery, saying it must hold credible polls in 2011 or risk increased instability.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson said acting President Goodluck Jonathan, who stepped in this month to fill the power vacuum left by President Umaru Yar'Adua's near three-month absence in a Saudi hospital, was making a good start but that Africa's largest oil producer remained in dangerous political territory.
"We're not out of the woods yet. We won't be out of the woods until Nigeria holds its next presidential election, until it has a president that all of the people have had an opportunity to select and vote for," the top U.S. diplomat for Africa told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Carson said that during a trip to Nigeria this month, he urged Jonathan and other political leaders to start serious preparations for national elections due in 2011, saying these could be a crucial turning point.
"They must be a significant improvement over the country's 2007 presidential elections, which were deeply embarrassing and deeply flawed," Carson said. The 2007 election was marred by vote-rigging and intimidation.
The race to succeed Yar'Adua in the West African nation of 140 million people appears wide open, although Jonathan could win broad support if he performs well.
Carson said the United States was heartened by Jonathan's commitments to tackle stalled oil reform plans, domestic gas supply shortages and instability in the Niger Delta, where militants have threatened to resume attacks on oil installations if the government does not quickly act on an amnesty program agreed to last year.
DELTA REMAINS ON EDGE
Attacks on oil and gas installations in the Niger Delta in recent years have prevented the OPEC member from pumping much above two-thirds of its 3 million barrels per day (bpd) installed capacity, costing it an estimated $1 billion a month in lost revenues, according to the central bank.
Nigerian crude is favored by refiners in the United States and Europe because it is light and easy to process into fuel products. The instability helped push world oil prices to record highs near $150 a barrel in 2008.
Among companies concerned by the situation are Royal Dutch Shell, U.S. giant Chevron, France's Total and local firm Oando.
"Security has improved considerably in most areas of the Delta," Carson said. "But a resumption of violence cannot be ruled out if the government does not follow through."
Nigerian officials have said the elections could be held as early as November -- although analysts say an accelerated timetable could increase political uncertainty.
Carson said it was crucial that Nigeria improve its INEC electoral commission, which he said "needs new and improved leadership if elections are to have any real meaning."
Carson said the United States would continue to take a strong line on Nigerian corruption and would seek to help Nigeria's government work to forestall the spread of militant Islam in Muslim areas of the country's north. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently characterized the corruption in Nigeria as "unbelievable."
Nigeria found itself in the spotlight following the December arrest of Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who is accused of trying to blow up a U.S. airliner as it approached Detroit from Amsterdam on Christmas Day.
The United States included Nigeria on a list of 14 countries whose travellers would be subject to increased security scrutiny after the attempted bombing, drawing fierce complaints from Abuja.
But Carson said U.S. officials at present saw "no direct linkages" between Nigerian militants -- which he said were largely motivated by local concerns -- and groups such as al Qaeda's North African wing, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
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