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Pompeo optimistic that Nigeria visa curbs will be lifted

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Tuesday he's optimistic that Nigeria will take the steps needed to remove itself from U.S. visa restrictions that were imposed last week.

Pompeo did not offer a timeline for the removal of the restrictions that the country's foreign minister said had “blindsided” Nigerian officials.

The restrictions announced on Friday bar Nigerians from receiving immigrant visas to live permanently in the United States. The Trump administration said the curbs were necessary because Nigeria was not adequately sharing information about its citizens.

Nigeria “has room to grow in sharing important national security information,” Pompeo said, standing beside Foreign Minister Geoffrey Onyeama at the State Department. “I am optimistic that is going to happen.”

Onyeama said Nigeria had identified the issues behind the ban and was already taking steps to address them.

“On the way here, or just before coming, we were somewhat blindsided by the announcement of the U.S. visa restrictions,” he said. He added, though, he was gratified to have the reasoning more fully explained by Pompeo and others officials.

“We have identified all those requirements, we had actually started working on all of them,” Onyeama said. He said Nigeria was close to creating an information sharing mechanism that would meet the criteria for passport security and sharing of criminal and terrorism information.

“We hope to have that up and running very soon and no longer running through third parties,” he said. “Hopefully once that has been achieved we look forward to being taken off this visa restriction list.”

The U.S. travel restrictions come at a time of growing insecurity in Nigeria. The country's military is still battling a decade-long insurgency by the Islamic extremist group Boko Haram in the northeast, and also now confronts a breakaway faction that has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group.

Nigeria is among six countries affected by the new restrictions. The others are Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar, Eritrea, Sudan and Tanzania.

Nigerians, who have long decried the visa application processes in both the United States and Europe as racist, expressed disbelief and anger after the announcement of the new policy, which takes effect Feb. 21.

At Tuesday's meeting, Pompeo also announced that the U.S. and the island of Jersey had agreed to return more than $300 million in Nigerian assets that had been stolen by Nigeria's former dictator Sani Abacha and stashed in foreign bank accounts.

He said the money would be used to fund infrastructure projects in strategic economic zones across Nigeria and their use would be monitored to ensure they are not corruptly diverted.