CHICAGO, Aug. 20 -- Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun defended her recent trip to Nigeria Tuesday, saying it was both a vacation and a personal diplomatic mission she hoped would offset unfairness in U.S. foreign policy toward the African nation. Moseley-Braun downplayed criticism of the trip and her meeting with military dictator Gen. Sani Abacha, saying contact with the African nation is the only way to effect change there. 'I hope that my private, personal diplomacy has helped to lead to an opening up of dialogue,' she said. 'I support efforts to democratize Nigeria.' She criticized the policy of the U.S. government toward Nigeria, which she called inconsistent with how other nations are treated. She pointed to American relations with Mexico, where '80 percent of the drugs that come into the United States come from,' and China, 'which makes no pretensions about being a democracy.' Amnesty International said it found the trip 'inappropriate' and called Nigeria a 'major human rights violator.' Moseley-Braun has been nearly alone among the Congessional Black Caucus in her support for Abacha, who took over the Nigerian government in 1993 and imprisoned the presumed election winner, Moshood Abiola. Abacha is also accused of ordering the hanging of an environmental activist. 'We have an obligation to pursue every diplomatic means to address the clean-up of the environment, to address democratization efforts, to address human rights,' Moseley-Braun said. 'I have been trying to urge a policy by the United States that is fair, even-handed and consistent.'
She said she has always taken an interest in the continent of Africa. 'I'm the only African-American in the Senate,' she pointed out. In a news conference from her Chicago office, the senator said the trip was no secret and did not prompt the resignation of her chief of staff, Edith Wilson, which she said had been in the works for months. Her office provided a statement from Wilson, in which she said her resignation was the result of 'differences of opinion' in recent months. Moseley-Braun called the resignation a 'mutual' decision. 'My five-day vacation was no secret,' Moseley-Braun said. 'My private staff was aware of my whereabouts.' That contradicted a report in Tuesday's Chicago Sun-Times, in which Wilson said 'absolutely nobody on the staff knew about this trip,' and implied it prompted her resignation. Other staff members told the Sun- Times Moseley-Braun left the impression she would be working in Illinois before she left the country. Revelations of the Nigerian visit are the latest in a series of embarrassing episodes involving the senator and her one-time fiance, Kgosie Matthews, who managed her successful 1992 campaign. Matthews, who traveled with her in Africa, was a registered agent for the Nigerian government. Moseley-Braun and Matthews went their separate ways after she took office and questionable campaign expenditures led to a Federal Election Commission investigation of her deeply indebted campaign. There were also allegations of sexual harassment against Matthews among staff members, particualrly ironic because Moseley-Braun was swept into office with several other women in a backlash from the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings. There has also been a general perception of disorganization within the senator's office, which is still working to pay off 1992 campaign debts. Wilson was Moseley-Braun's third chief of staff in as many years. Moseley-Braun said she has a personal friendship with Abacha's wife and wanted to console her after the recent death of her son. She could not say when she first met the Abacha family. Moseley-Braun also said she paid for the trip with her own money.