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U s Nigerian election results were hailed, but election observers protested the results


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    As independent U.S. election observers raised alarm bells about widespread voting irregularities in Nigeria’s Feb. 25 presidential elections, the U.S. State Department was singing an entirely different tune, congratulating Bola Ahmed Tinubu as the electoral victor and hailing a “competitive election” that “represents a new period for Nigerian politics and democracy.”

    As independent U.S. election observers raised alarm bells about widespread voting irregularities in Nigeria’s Feb. 25 presidential elections, the U.S. State Department was singing an entirely different tune, congratulating Bola Ahmed Tinubu as the electoral victor and hailing a “competitive election” that “represents a new period for Nigerian politics and democracy.”

    The stark split screen in how independent election observers and the State Department responded to Nigeria’s election caused anger and backlash in Washington among other U.S. agencies and Congress, which criticized the State Department for being too quick to endorse an election victor just as opposition leaders were mounting legal challenges to contest the outcome.

    “While other world powers were cautiously assessing all the voting irregularities and withholding the congrats messages, we just decided to skip ahead a few steps and tout Tinubu as the winner, and I just can’t understand why,” fumed one U.S. official who works on African policy, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Given the stakes here, [it’s] hard to see how that wasn’t just a really bad idea,” said another U.S. official.

    Nigeria’s presidential vote constituted one of the most closely watched and significant elections of the year. The 70-year-old Tinubu—former governor of Nigeria’s Lagos state, who is seen as a wealthy kleptocratic kingmaker in Nigerian politics—competed against leading opposition candidate Atiku Abubakar and third-party candidate Peter Obi. The elections were marred by widespread accounts of voter irregularities, sporadic violence at polling stations, disorderly delays, and other logistical issues.

    “These were the first elections of the year in the largest democracy on the youngest continent,” said Mark Green, president and CEO of the Wilson Center and former chief of the U.S. Agency for International Development. “They’re important for Nigeria obviously and the consolidation of democracy. They’re important to the region because stability in Nigeria is the linchpin to stability in that whole region.”

    The U.S. message to Tinubu, which acknowledged frustrations for Nigerians and shortcomings in the process, stands in sharp contrast to how the United States reacted to Kenya’s 2022 presidential election. In that case, Washington waited until the Kenyan Supreme Court upheld the results of the election—nearly a full month later—before issuing a statement congratulating William Ruto on his win.

    Critics of the administration’s stance on the Nigerian election argue that a statement from the State Department isn’t just a statement. The United States has significant political and diplomatic clout in West Africa, and some U.S. officials who spoke to Foreign Policy said its decision to publicly congratulate Tinubu before legal and legitimate election challenges could be played out could indirectly undermine those challenges before they even begin.

    “The ongoing electoral process in Nigeria is widely viewed as deeply flawed by election observers and many Nigerians,” said U.S. Sen. Jim Risch, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “It is disappointing to see the administration rush to embrace the result while the full picture of what occurred during this electoral process is yet to be seen.”

    That’s one of the reasons why so many experts and officials paid attention to the State Department’s March 1 statement on the Nigerian election, which led with congratulations for Tinubu and Nigeria’s democratic transition before acknowledging the concerns and shortcomings in the elections.

    “I do not understand that statement,” said Michelle Gavin, an expert on U.S.-Africa relations at the Council on Foreign Relations. “I don’t understand the timing or the tone. This was not an electoral exercise that appears to have inspired confidence in the process among the Nigerian people, so that congratulatory tone seems strange.”

    “In terms of atmospherics, it certainly suggests that whatever questions remain, whether or not they get answered isn’t very important to the rest of the world,” she added.

    Other experts downplayed the impact of the U.S. statement on the election, saying U.S. public signaling won’t stop Nigerian opposition leaders from mounting election challenges through proper legal channels. “Let’s also be clear that a statement from the State Department does not in any way affect the judicial process in Nigeria,” said Ebenezer Obadare, another scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations. “The United States is not saying: ‘Please stop with the arbitration. Move on to the swearing in.’”

    U.S. signaling on contested elections have had indirect impacts before, such as in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s 2019 elections, when the Trump administration hastily overrode internal opposition from some senior U.S. officials and endorsed election results widely seen as rigged in favor of Félix Tshisekedi before his political opponents’ momentum to mount legal challenges began.

    Some experts believe that the U.S. tendency to quickly endorse election results, even despite legal challenges and credible allegations of voter irregularities, could erode trust in democratic institutions in nascent democracies in Africa and undermine the United States already shaky standing as the top defender of democracy worldwide. Washington faces similar such test cases in other key elections coming up this year across the continent, including in Zimbabwe, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and again in Congo.

    In response to the criticism, a State Department spokesperson reaffirmed that the U.S. government recognizes Tinubu as president-elect and said the department “understand[s] many Nigerians have expressed frustrations regarding the electoral process, including significant logistics challenges and shortcomings of technology used for the first time in a presidential election cycle.”

    “We call on parties and candidates, if they choose to challenge the election outcome, to do so through appropriate legal mechanisms, not through public messaging that attacks other individuals or entities,” the spokesperson said. “It is up to the Nigerian legal system to resolve any legal challenges.”

    Mary Beth Leonard, U.S. ambassador to Nigeria, issued a lengthy separate statement on Monday that more directly criticized the election process and commended Tinubu’s two election opponents for issuing election challenges through proper legal channels—while not backtracking on the United States congratulations to Tinubu.

    “The United States is no stranger to election-related controversy and conflict. As much as it can be unsatisfying to end an electoral process in a courtroom, in a constitutional democracy bound by the rule of law, that is where electoral conflicts may appropriately conclude,” Leonard said in the statement.

    Experts believe overturning the election results through the courts is a long shot, but they said it bodes well for the health of Nigeria’s democracy that the courts will hear the cases. “When the opposition decides to rely on these institutions to bring its requests, it’s good news because that means they rely on these institutions and expect something from them. As long as they are independent, that’s the way democracy works,” said Rama Yade, an expert at the Atlantic Council think tank.

    Tinubu was declared the victor by Nigeria’s independent electoral commission, winning 37 percent of the vote to Abubakar’s 29 percent and Obi’s 25 percent. Both Abubakar and Obi fiercely contested the vote and vowed to challenge the election results.

    Of the 87 million people with voter cards ahead of the election, fewer than 25 million votes were cast, according to the final tally from Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). Abubakar lambasted the election results as “a rape of democracy” while Obi said he was “robbed” of victory and pledged to prove his case to the Nigerian people in court.

    Green of the Wilson Center joined a 40-person delegation of former senior U.S. diplomats and experts to observe the Nigerian elections. That group issued a preliminary report outlining “failures of logistics, challenges with voter registration and voter card distribution, inadequate communication by INEC, lack of transparency in the publication of election data, and unchecked political violence before and during the elections.”

    “It was very clear that these elections fell short of the reasonable expectations and hopes of the Nigerian people, and unfortunately, so many of the logistical issues that have been widely reported [on] were both foreseeable and avoidable,” Green said.

    When asked about the Biden administration’s stance on the elections, Green added: “We know that the candidates who finished second and third have taken their disputes to courts, and that’s appropriate. And my own view is that needs to play itself out.”

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