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Last Updated: Tuesday, 29 July, 2003, 12:03 GMT 13:03 UK
President of Nigeria
President Obasanjo
A shortage of food. Water contaminated by cholera. Hundreds of people killed.

Tens of thousands of refugees, plus daily shelling from rag tag armies who have all the discipline of street gangs.

That's another day in the life of Liberia, despite the fact that 4,500 US troops have been sent on ships to the region. They are waiting for West African states to send in peacekeepers. Those states met and decided - yet again - not to set a date for sending in a force.

Gavin Esler spoke to President Obasanjo of Nigeria. He put it to him that Liberia was in his back yard. He and other West African countries had promised to send peacekeepers - so why after all the promises had nothing been done?

OLUSEGUN OBASANJO:
(President of Nigeria)

Well, it is in our back yard, it is our problem. But it is not our problem alone. It is in fact Africa's problem, and it is world problem, so it should not be regarded as Nigeria's problem alone. Anywhere in the world where there is conflict, it is the world's problem.

GAVIN ESLER:
Okay, but the US Defense Secretary, Paul Wolfowitz, said yesterday "It is very important if we are going to succeed in dealing with a large number of unstable places in the world, that countries of the region, in this case Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal, who have the capability and have expressed the will to do the job, be in the lead." The suggestion is that you are not leading.

OBASANJO:
We are leading. If we are not leading we would not have suggested more than three weeks ago that we have the troops ready.

ESLER:
But they are not there.

OBASANJO:
They are not there because we haven't got the capacity to do all that is necessary. And we made that clear.

ESLER:
When you look at the situation on the ground, you see the killing day by day - perhaps as many as 1,000 people killed in the past week, cholera, looting, collapse of civil order. What does that do to you?

OBASANJO:
I think that - I feel that the world should have itself to blame. Wherever there is any conflict in the world and people are killing in thousands, it is the responsibility of the world as a whole. Of course the countries of the region or sub-region, must feel concerned and be ready to be in the vanguard. And this is what Nigeria has done.

ESLER:
Forgive me but you are not there. You have been saying you should be there, you accept a moral responsibility and you are not there.

OBASANJO:
We accept responsibility within the limit of our resources, and the world must know that Nigeria made contributions to Liberia before. We spent well over $12 billion when we were in Liberia and Sierra Leone for well over 12 years. The world did not acknowledge that, not even in terms of giving us debt relief for the contribution we made.

ESLER:
Okay, we know that there are 4,500 US troops sitting at sea, off the coast. What do you want them to do?

OBASANJO:
Well it's not what I want them to do, what do they want to do?

ESLER:
They are waiting for you, they are saying when the West African peace force goes in, they will then be prepared to come in. They are waiting for you.

OBASANJO:
I like that, I like that. If your house is on fire and somebody says, "Here I am, I have my water, a fire engine. Now when you put your fire out I will come in." I wonder what sort of help that is. With all due respect. What we are saying is, give us adequate material and logistic support and we will do the job. Now, what have we got from any of these countries up till now? And we are saying when we went there before, when we went to Liberia, nobody gave us support, and we lost well over 1,000 Nigerians. As I said to you, it cost us well over $12 billion. Now what we are saying is that we have two battalions of over 1,500 ready to go in. We cannot do that alone. We will do it with our West African brothers and we will do it with the support and the backing of Africa and the world. It is as simple as that.

ESLER:
Why have you offered safe haven to Charles Taylor who is widely considered to be an international war criminal?

OBASANJO:
Because if you do not do that for Charles Taylor you will get what you are getting now. Charles Taylor may stay there and say we fight to a finish and if Charles Taylor fights to a finish, there will be no peace. And without a cease-fire in Liberia, I wonder if anybody would want to go there.

ESLER:
He'd be no match to the Nigerian army would he? His is a rag tag army. If you landed your 1,300 troops that would be over.

OBASANJO:
For what reason should I go and fight to kill if I can't actually have a cease-fire and move in as an interposing force and prevent killing?

ESLER:
Wouldn't it be better for you to commit yourself to handing Charles Taylor over so he can be tried in a court for his war crimes?

OBASANJO:
Well, anybody who can take care of Charles Taylor without a cease-fire, to hand him over, should do that. But Nigeria will not do that.

ESLER:
But you are the regional superpower?

OBASANJO:
We are not a regional superpower.

ESLER:
But it is you the people look up to.

OBASANJO:
We are part of a West African region and we don't claim to be a superpower.

ESLER:
But isn't this a terrible indictment for the whole region, that you look to the French in Cote d'Ivoire, the British in Sierra Leone and the Americans in Liberia to solve your¿?

OBASANJO:
I believe it is an indictment of the whole world. But part of the people who made this happen do not even come out early enough to put out the fire. It isn't Nigeria that set Liberia on fire, is it? Of course it is not. It is not the West Africans that set Liberia on fire. You know who did, and those who set Liberia on fire should also join in putting the fire out.

ESLER:
How quickly can you go in?

OBASANJO:
We can go in today or tomorrow.

ESLER:
But you have been saying that since the beginning of June and it hasn't happened because you say there is no air lift capacity. Who is it that has to provide this airlift capacity? Is it the United States?

OBASANJO:
The United Nations.

ESLER:
Can you see how outsiders looking at this would say perhaps there isn't an African solution to an African problem without outside assistance?

OBASANJO:
We have never said that there is an absolute African solution to an African problem without outside existence. But what we have always said is look, let us devise an African solution and give us support to implement that African solution into an African problem.

ESLER:
Mr President, thank you for talking to me.

OBASANJO:
Thank you very much.

This transcript was produced from the teletext subtitles that are generated live for Newsnight. It has been checked against the programme as broadcast, however Newsnight can accept no responsibility for any factual inaccuracies. We will be happy to correct serious errors.



WATCH AND LISTEN
Gavin Esler
talked exclusively to President Obasanjo of Nigeria about why his peacekeepers still have not gone in to Liberia



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