KANO, Nigeria | US military aircraft to deliver more aid to Venezuela border

KANO, Nigeria (AP) — As Nigerians prepared to vote for president on Saturday, Sister Meg Odeh looked up from a selection of pineapples laid out at a fume-choked roadside market and considered the fate of her country. She ticked off the sprawling problems facing Africa’s most populous nation: insecurity, poverty, corruption.

“I’m just praying for something good to happen to our people,” the Roman Catholic nun said with a sigh.

More than 84 million voters in this country of some 190 million will head to the polls in what is seen as a close and heated race between 76-year-old President Muhammadu Buhari and top challenger Atiku Abubakar, a billionaire former vice president. Both have pledged to work for a peaceful election even as their supporters, including high-level officials, have caused alarm with vivid warnings against foreign interference and allegations of rigging.

“We love our country and we need our country to be safe from all the violence … and all the nonsense that takes place during election time,” worshipper Amin Muhammad Khalif said as he emerged Friday from prayers in Kano, Nigeria’s second-largest city in a nation largely evenly split between Muslims and Christians.

When Buhari came to power in 2015 he made history with the first defeat of an incumbent president in an election hailed as one of the most transparent and untroubled ever in Nigeria, which has seen deadly post-vote violence in the past.

Now Buhari could become the second incumbent to be unseated.

His term has been marked by a crash in global oil prices that spun Nigeria’s heavily crude-dependent economy into a rare recession, from which it only emerged in 2017. Unemployment shot up. The country passed India as the nation with the most people living in extreme poverty. More than 13 million children are said to be out of school.

Insecurity on multiple fronts has seen little improvement, worrying neighbors of the West African regional powerhouse and beyond.

While the military pushed Boko Haram extremists out of many communities in the country’s northeast, claims of the group being “crushed” have withered in the face of continuing violence. A new offshoot pledging allegiance to the Islamic State group has surged in recent months, attacking military bases — and this week, a governor’s convoy — sending tens of thousands of people fleeing anew.

On top of that, banditry in the northwest, oil militants in the south and deadly fighting in the central region between farmers and herders over increasingly precious land keep security forces stretched and the population on edge. On Friday, authorities reported at least 66 deaths in a single community this week in what one resident blamed on farmer-herder clashes.

Even in the fight against corruption, in which Buhari could claim some progress, many in Nigeria have expressed concern that those targeted are mostly opposition figures. Last month, Buhari damaged his reputation by suspending the country’s chief justice, a key figure in any legal challenge to the election, over graft concerns without consulting other branches of government as required.

Meanwhile, many Nigerians worry about Buhari himself after he spent more than 150 days outside the country for still-unspecified medical treatment. Spare in both charisma and physique, Buhari spoke for just a few minutes at his final campaign rally on Thursday and struggled to hear or grasp a number of questions in an earlier, nationally televised town hall.

Joking with colleagues about the president’s seemingly befuddled condition at times, one employee at the airport in the capital, Abuja, pointed to his temple and grinned. “No SIM card,” he said.

Buhari’s chief of staff, Abba Kyari, has sought to remind Nigerians how bad it was before this administration, when “every declared reform was in fact a disguise to privatize profit and leave the rest of us with all the risk.” The president is delivering on basic needs first, Kyari wrote in The Nation newspaper on Thursday. “We, at least, mean what we say.”

Borrowing a page from President Donald Trump’s playbook, top challenger Abubakar has campaigned on the theme of “Let’s Make Nigeria Work Again,” while vowing to apply his business acumen to privatize Nigeria’s all-important state oil company and lift 50 million people out of poverty by 2025.

“I have faith in the capacity of Nigeria to make a quantum leap from third world to first” like that of Singapore or Malaysia, he tweeted last month.

Despite such proclamations, Abubakar has US military aircraft to deliver more aid to Venezuela border

By JOSHUA GOODMAN and SCOTT SMITH, Associated Press
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — The Trump administration is sending another large shipment of humanitarian aid to the Venezuelan border in Colombia, for the first time using U.S. military aircraft as it increases pressure on Nicolas Maduro to give up power, according to a State Department email sent to Congress.

The announcement of additional aid comes as the Trump administration on Friday added Venezuela’s oil boss and key intelligence officers to a long list of Maduro loyalists under U.S. financial sanctions.

The 250 tons of food supplies, hygiene kits and nutritional supplements will begin arriving Saturday to the border city of Cucuta, where tons of boxes of emergency aid stamped with the U.S. flag are already warehoused awaiting delivery into Venezuela.

The email sent Friday was provided to The Associated Press by a congressional aide who wasn’t authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

The aid came at the request of opposition leader Juan Guaido, who the U.S. and dozens of other countries have recognized as Venezuela’s rightful leader after President Nicolas Maduro last month was sworn in for a second term widely seen as illegitimate.

Guaido has vowed to deliver the aid over the objections of Maduro, who in an exclusive interview Thursday with the AP said that the offer of U.S. assistance represents mere “crumbs” compared to hostile efforts to block the country’s oil exports and restrict its access to foreign funding.

While the U.S. military has long supported civilian-led humanitarian assistance missions around the world, this is the first time they are being used to deploy aid for Venezuela. Last year, the U.S.

government sent more than $100 million in aid to Cucuta to help Colombian authorities absorb some of the estimated 3 million of Venezuelans fleeing hyperinflation and food shortages.

In slapping new sanctions on Maj. Gen. Manuel Quevedo, the president of the Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA, U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said the oil executive had been instrumental in propping up what he called Maduro’s illegitimate regime.

In the AP interview Maduro said Quevedo had been in India this week looking to drum up new business for PDVSA after the company was itself hit with sanctions aimed at cutting off an estimated $11 billion in profits.

The new sanctions also target four high-ranking intelligence officials, including the head of the feared SEBIN intelligence police and an elite commando unit known as FAES that is accused of several targeted killings.

In a statement, Mnuchin accused the officials of corruption and helping Maduro repress democracy in Venezuela — which includes using “torture and other brutal use of force.”

“We are intent on going after those facilitating Maduro’s corruption and predation,” Mnuchin said, adding that Quevedo and others have syphoned off funds that “rightfully belong to the people of Venezuela.”

The U.S. sanctions block access to any property the individuals own in the United States and bans U.S. citizens from doing business with them.

As U.S. pressure mounts, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters Friday in Reykjavik, Iceland, that he sees clear signs that Maduro is starting to understand Venezuelans reject him as their leader.

In the AP interview, Maduro said he was willing to meet President Donald Trump at any time or place to resolve the crisis over U.S. recognition of Guaido.

Pompeo said Maduro’s request wasn’t new, but it reflects that he’s realizing his crisis-riddled nation rejects his “model of governance.”

Pompeo wouldn’t say whether he would send envoy Elliott Abrams to meet Maduro in Caracas.

Maduro told the AP that his foreign minister has met Abrams twice recently in New York for secret talks.

By JOSHUA GOODMAN and SCOTT SMITH,  Associated Press