ABUJA, Nigeria (AP) -- U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Wednesday urged oil-rich Nigeria to embrace broad political reform and ease tensions that have led to sectarian violence and disrupted energy production in the Niger Delta.
In the Nigerian capital of Abuja on the fifth stop in a seven-nation tour Africa, Clinton said that action on those fronts was needed to protect the country's status as the continent's largest oil producer and largest recipient of direct U.S. investment.
"It is critical for the people of Nigeria, first and foremost, but indeed for the United States that Nigeria succeeds in fulfilling its promise," Clinton told a news conference after meeting Nigerian Foreign Minister Ojo Maduekwe.
"We strongly support and encourage the government of Nigeria's efforts to increase transparency, reduce corruption (and) provide support for democratic processes in preparation for the 2011 elections," she said.
U.S. officials regard Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation, as a bellwether for the continent's success and have expressed deep concern about the coup-prone country's political situation, especially after 2007 elections that were marred by fraud.
Maduekwe said there was a "national consensus on issues of enhanced democracy, a deep commitment to rule of law and electoral reforms" and pledged that President Umaru Yar'Adua's government would deliver on reform.
Nigeria is the fifth largest supplier of oil to the United States and U.S. officials are also troubled by unrest and kidnappings in the Niger Delta, where indigenous groups have complained vehemently about exploitation of oil reserves by foreign petroleum companies.
Violence in the region has led to cuts in production that in June led to Angola surpassing Nigeria in monthly oil production.
To deal with the situation, Yar'Adua has offered militants in the Niger Delta amnesty if they turn in their arms, register and take part in reintegration programs.
Maduekwe said the offer, which took effect earlier this month, was the result of a realization that a new method had to be used to deal with the unrest, which the government had previously tried to quell with military force.
"We clearly understood the need to be bold and imaginative in dealing with that," he said. "Old methods were not going to be good enough."
Maduekwe said the week-old amnesty offer had already succeeded in improving oil production levels. "Even the mere perception that peace is coming back, amnesty is working, the oil levels are gradually coming up again."
Clinton said the amnesty approach was "very promising" and said Washington would look at ways it might be able to assist. She added that she wanted to help ensure that "money from the earth and its riches should be spent on the people" of Nigeria and other African nations.
In addition to the Niger Delta unrest, U.S. officials are concerned by a recent explosion of sectarian violence sparked by the killing of the head of the militant Islamist Boko Haram sect that left more than 700 people dead in the mainly Muslim north.
The emergence of Boko Haram - which is translated as "Western education is sacrilege" and seeks the imposition of strict Islamic Shariah law in secular Nigeria - has led to fears of the spread of Islamist extremism in the country.
Clinton declined to offer an opinion on the government's actions during the violence that began after sect members attacked a police station and the death in apparent custody of the group's leader, but said there was "no doubt" that Islamist extremists wanted to expand their influence in Africa.
Maduekwe said Nigerians in general were not susceptible to extremist ideology and attributed the "spasm of violence" to misguided youths with political aims hiding behind religion.
Nigeria is the fifth country Clinton has visited so far on a seven-nation tour of Africa aimed at promoting development and good governance. She will travel next to Liberia and Cape Verde.