On Wednesday, four senior officials of the United States government and the deputy Chief of Mission at the Nigerian Embassy in Washington DC, made a last-minute ditch to place America’s position on the elections on record.
Speaking to the Nigerian community at the Embassy, the Nigerian diplomat, H.M. Hassan; Tobias Glucksman and Allison Callery of the State Department; and Chad Weinberg and Julia Drude of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) variously stated that the United States government is not supporting any candidate or political party in the 2019 elections.
“We have heard news flying around that the government of this country is siding with one political party or the other,” said Mr. Hassan, who denounced such statements as falsehood.
Speaking for the Nigerian government, the ambassador said “we engage with the United States government on many levels and cover many areas.” On elections, the diplomat emphasised that “they (the U.S. government) are neutral.”
Echoing Mr Hassan, the Americans who requested that, in line with Chatham House rules, each official’s statement should be attributed to the group, said their government’s “final policy stance or pronouncement on this election” is the statement Ambassador Symington released last Tuesday (February 12).
The seven-paragraph statement, published on the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria’s website, was apparently issued as a rebuttal to rumours and a clarification of an earlier statement by the U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria, Mr. Stuart Symington. It states in part that “fake news and rumors are operating in overdrive” as the election drew closer and that the United States Embassy in Nigeria is “not taking sides in Nigeria’s election.”
Without saying how far the fake news and rumours reached, the four Americans said that they intensified efforts this last week before the elections to dispel claims that their government supports any candidate or party.
“We have been reaching out to various partners to review how we see the elections”, they said, including civil society members and lawmakers at the United States Congress both of whom they briefed on Monday.
“We spoke the unvarnished truth to civil society members, heard their perspectives and their concerns, tackled the tough questions they have for us and the challenges they gave to us”, they said.
“Later that day, we went to Congress to answer some more tough questions and exchanges about all that we are doing, what we see and what we hope to achieve”.
The officials however noted that the United States’ non-partisan stance only applies to candidates and political parties. Their government, they said, is very supportive of Nigeria’s electoral process and their strategic partnership with Nigeria on all issues including elections.
“From the United States’ perspective and, it’s fair to say, that of a lot of the international community, we all look at Nigeria the way Nigerians look at Nigeria. You are the giant of Africa, you have the largest economy, the largest population, the largest democracy, you have important influence not just in West Africa but on the continent and around the world”.
Nigeria is a strategically important partner
Nigeria’s strategic importance to the United States, the American officials say, was significantly boosted by the 2015 election which the Americans describe as “the most credible process that we’ve had and something that was celebrated back in the time” because it was the first transition to an opposition party.
That election demonstrated that Nigeria’s electoral “institutions and processes that made that happen broke new ground and a real sense of hope was born within the country and also around the region” said the Americans.
“Since that election, we have certainly noticed in West Africa that Nigeria has played very helpful role in supporting credible processes throughout the region. There have been thirteen elections in the region and at least six of them resulted in the transfer of power to an opposition candidate. That is sign of deepening of democratic institutions throughout the region.”
Hoping to build on the success of the last general election, the American officials said that the State Department and USAID started their preparations for this year’s elections in 2017 and 2015 respectively.
“We started to think of how can we support Nigeria with the tools that we have; whether it’s technical assistance, diplomatic intervention to ensure that we build on the success, deepen and strengthen democracy in the country. Those are our overarching goal. A year and a half ago, State Department officials started developing ideas and programs but USAID started as soon as the 2015 election was concluded. They said okay, we felt like we did a good job, how can we do better.”
How INEC has improved
The American officials are convinced that this year’s elections will be an improvement on previous ones.
“A lot of the people that we talk to believe that, in a general sense, we seem to be in a better place this time around, not only in terms of the levels of violence but also the political awareness. On the institution side, INEC did state in 2015 that they have the capacity to manage an extensive election process in Nigeria, there are high expectations for their performance this election circle”.
The Americans pointed out four areas in which INEC beefed up its institutional facilities to improve the voting experience and maintain their credibility.
“One big change that we saw was the continuous voter registration process that was different from last time. It allowed for the year-long process of which brought in fourteen million more voters. There are now a little above 84 million registered voters at this point. That is a big improvement to enfranchise more Nigerians into the process.”
The other improvement “has been the accommodations that INEC has been making in order to ensure that more individuals, particularly internally displaced individuals and persons with disabilities to participate in the process.” This still has its challenges but they have been working through those to address them.
The third area of improvement that USAID officials learnt of through partners who work with INEC is the issue of voter privacy, ensuring that individuals have the ability to cast their ballots in private in a cubicle so that voting will that the election will truly be secret ballot.
The fourth area in which INEC has made incremental improvement is the continued and active outreach and engagement with the public on voter education and civic engagement. They have been using “different types of tools for communication, different channels, whether that’s online or television, and different types of graphic display in terms of communications to ensure they further in their ability to get more people involved in the process.”
INEC early on Saturday announced the postponement of the general elections by one week.
The postponement means the presidential and National Assembly elections earlier scheduled for February 16 will now hold on February 23. The governorship and state assembly elections initially scheduled for March 2 will now hold on March 9.
INEC mentioned challenges of logistics as reason for the postponement.
The postponement has been condemned by most Nigerians including the two major parties – APC and PDP, and their presidential candidates.