ABUJA, Nigeria - Seeking to breaking down the taboos shrouding a disease that has devastated Africa, President Clinton urged Nigerians yesterday to show the same resolve they displayed in enduring decades of dictatorship in confronting what he called the "tyranny" of AIDS.
Clinton, standing beside a man infected with the virus that afflicts 24 million Africans and has become the continent's leading killer, applauded Nigeria's efforts to control the spread of AIDS.
But he offered a blunt reminder to Africans that acquired immune deficiency syndrome is preventable - if people will only speak frankly about how it is spread, and then act.
"AIDS is 100 percent preventable - if we are willing to deal with it openly and honestly," Clinton said. "In every country, in any culture, it is difficult, painful, at the very least, embarrassing to talk about the issues involved with AIDS.
"But is it harder to talk about these things than to watch a child die of AIDS who could have lived if the rest of us had done our part?" the president asked. "Is it harder to talk about than to comfort a child whose mother has died?
"We have to break the silence about how this disease spreads and how to prevent it. And we need to fight AIDS, not people with AIDS."
The president's remarks presented a bold challenge, not only to Nigerians but to all in Africa, where health workers and experts have lamented that the social stigma surrounding the disease and an absence of public education and discussion of its dangers and impact have contributed greatly to its spread.
Clinton announced some increased aid for Nigeria's fight - $20 million to control the spread of AIDS, malaria and polio, and a plan to include AIDS education as part of the military training that U.S. troops are giving to Nigerian peacekeepers headed to nearby Sierra Leone, which has been ravaged by civil war.
He told the audience of young people, religious leaders and female leaders that Nigerians, despite the much-heralded introduction of civilian rule last year, will never be free until they bring infectious diseases under control. Of Nigeria's population of 114 million, about 2.6 million are infected with the virus that causes AIDS.
U.S. officials, frustrated by the lack of action by some African governments, have praised Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo for making the fight against AIDS a priority. But the Nigerian president stressed yesterday that it was a disease that his country could not battle alone.
Africans have reacted coolly to the United States' offer of $1 billion in annual loans to finance the purchase of anti-AIDS drugs in sub-Saharan Africa, suggesting that the approach would add to countries' already heavy debt burden of some $32 billion. Throughout Clinton's two-day visit here, Obasanjo has repeatedly raised the issue of debt relief, encouraging the wealthy nations of the world to forgive the large sums amassed by previous African rulers.
Clinton, in addressing business leaders yesterday, said that past leaders of Nigeria - a country that has suffered under callous and corrupt dictators for most of its modern history - had squandered the country's riches and that leaders now must be careful to focus any debt relief on improving the lives of its people.
Earlier yesterday, Clinton toured a small African village, walking through muddy paths past huts that were hooked up to electricity only a month ago. Guided by Mohammedu Baba, the chief of the village, Ushafa, Clinton entered a small medical clinic that had been stocked with supplies by the State Department the day before.