The Recent Elections in Nigeria – Views from America

Special Briefing
Johnnie Carson
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of African Affairs
Washington, DC
April 28, 2011
MS. FULTON: Good afternoon and welcome to the Department of State. Very pleased today to have with us Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Johnnie Carson to talk about the recent elections in Nigeria. He was on hand to observe personally, so he’ll be able to give you his on-the-ground accounts of the results. So without further ado, Assistant Secretary Carson.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY CARSON: Thank you very, very much. Glad to be here with you this afternoon to talk a little bit about the recent elections in Nigeria. Nigeria has just completed its most successful elections since its return to multiparty democracy in 1999. Despite some technical imperfections, those elections represent a substantial improvement over the flawed 2007 electoral process. This reverses a downward democratic trajectory and provides the country a solid foundation for strengthening its electoral procedures and democratic institutions in the years to come. The Nigerian people have shown to the world their resilience and will to have their voices heard. These elections were a real opportunity to choose their leaders.
This week, Nigerian voters returned to the polls for the fourth time and final time to select their state assembly members and governors. On April 26th, all but two states held elections. Elections in Kaduna and Bauchi states occurred April 28th to give additional time for security to return to those two areas. International and domestic observers reported the April 26th elections to be generally well organized, albeit with a lower turnout in various locations compared with voter turnout earlier this month.
Following the deplorable post-election violence of the previous week, we are heartened that many Nigerian voters went to the polls to vote in an environmentally – environment largely free of violence. We remain concerned about allegations of fraud and ballot box snatching in various jurisdictions, and we strongly urge Nigerian authorities to investigate and take corrective actions on all of these allegations. We commend the Independent National Electoral Commission and especially its chairman, Professor Jega, and the security services for addressing challenges and improving their efforts with each progressive election.
We are confident that INEC leaders will continue to take steps to further improve the electoral process to ensure that some political actors do not divert to their old – revert to their old ways of subverting the will of the Nigerian electorate. We are partners in the international community, and will not hesitate to take appropriate action against individuals of any political party who seek to undermine the integrity of the electoral process, whether at the state, national, or local elections.
Again, we congratulate the people of Nigeria on holding very successful elections. Thank you.
QUESTION: Secretary Carson, two questions. One, the CPC has said that it has evidence of irregularities and that it plans to go to court over those. So question one is: To what extent do you think that the existing irregularities cast a shadow on President Jonathan’s victory? Second, and in a way the more important question is: To what extent do you think that he is likely to be inclusive going forward so as to help lay to rest or to help unify the country? Would you expect or hope, for example, that when he names a cabinet he will reach out to opposition figures? Can you give us your sense of that?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY CARSON: I hope that INEC will take seriously all allegations of election irregularity. There is no doubt in my mind that there were some imperfections, some technical problems, and probably some justified cases of rigging. But it is up to the election commission to investigate those. I do not believe that any of the irregularities or technical imperfections undermine the overall outcome of this election and that the elections do reflect the will of a majority of the Nigerian people.
I cannot say what kind of cabinet or government President Jonathan will put in place. But I do note that his vice president is, in fact, a former northern governor and that the constitution does call for the president of the country to select from individual states various cabinet members. I hope that he will act in both a responsible and inclusive manner in the selection of those individuals for his cabinet and that in doing so, he will be reaching out to heal the political divisions that were uncovered during the election process.
MS. FULTON: In the back.
QUESTION: I have a question actually about Sudan. Before we came out here, the Treasury Department pulled the Bank of Khartoum off of the sanctions list, and I wonder if you can explain that move, and then more broadly how Sudan is doing on this roadmap toward normalization with the U.S.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY CARSON: Let me say that I’m not aware of this recent decision to pull the Bank of Khartoum off the sanctions list, and so I will not comment on that.
With respect to the roadmap, we continue to see progress in the implementation of the roadmap, and we continue to encourage the Government of Sudan to continue to fulfill its obligations that remain under the roadmap. One of the most important aspects of this was the successful referenda election in South Sudan that went from January 9 to 15. That went extraordinarily well. It was largely free of violence – large turnouts, well organized, and reflected the will of the people of the South to secure their independence. We continue to encourage very strongly that the Khartoum government, the NCP, and the Southern Sudanese Government, the SPLM, to work to resolve the remaining key issues that are a part of the conclusion of the CPA. This means resolving the Abyei crisis before July 9 and resolving the issues of oil and wealth-sharing, border demarcation, as well as issues related to citizenship.
QUESTION: Can I follow up on that one? Just to stay with the question of Abyei, President Bashir is quoted today as having said, quote, “If there’s any attempt to secede Abyei within the borders of the new state, we will not recognize the new state,” close quote. What is your response to that, and does that not sort of ratchet up tensions ahead of July?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY CARSON: Let me just say that those comments are not helpful at all, and they only serve to inflame and heighten tensions. It is important that both sides – those in Khartoum and those in Juba – focus intensely on trying to resolve the key issues that have not been completed under the CPA. Abyei is one of them. This must be done before July 9, and it is important that President Bashir and the President of South Sudan Salva Kiir continue to meet, negotiate to resolve these issues as quickly as possible.
MS. FULTON: Back to Nigeria?
QUESTION: Yeah. Back to Nigeria. How much do you expect these elections in Nigeria to promote efforts towards democracy in the broader region? Can you –
ASSISTANT SECRETARY CARSON: I think the success of the Nigerian elections are primarily of importance to the Nigerian people, but they also send a very strong signal across Africa. Nigeria is one of the two most important countries in sub-Saharan Africa. It is also the most populous country in Africa with 150 million people. It’s also the second largest Muslim country in Africa after Egypt.
The people of Nigeria have clearly demonstrated a desire to have a democratic government, to participate in democratically-run elections, and I think this reflects a desire of many people across Africa. It also is an indication, too, that if Nigeria, with its large size and population, can, in effect, run and manage successful democratic elections, that it is possible for many of the other smaller states to do so as well. It also indicates that the democratic trajectory not only in Nigeria, but across West Africa has not stalled but continues to rise.
QUESTION: Might you be soft-pedaling the violence a little bit? I’m reading some wire material today about perhaps 500 people killed and Christian churches set afire. And also people from the elections say that they’re very discouraged by this and that they prefer to not have an election if this sort of thing happens. Might you be looking through rose-colored glasses at this sort of thing?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY CARSON: Absolutely not. But let me first say we deplore the violence that occurred particularly after the conclusion of the presidential elections a week and a half ago. We saw widespread violence throughout much of northern Nigeria. Both the president and the main opposition candidates – both called on their supporters to not support violent activities and to work to restore peace as quickly as possible.
I think that there has been a history of violence associated with Nigerian elections in the past. But in this election, we have clearly seen a much more responsible security force and a security presence in and around the electoral sites. So it’s important that violence not be a part of the democratic process. We deplore it, and I think senior officials in Nigeria have also deplored it as well. We hope that these elections will be a baseline for greater improvement in both their technical procedures as well as in their security as well.
MS. FULTON: Do we have time for maybe one more question?
QUESTION: Can I ask about Uganda? There are reports this morning that a fourth opposition leader has been arrested, and my question is about the U.S. – the Administration’s response. Are we considering any kind of pressure on the Ugandan Government?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY CARSON: We have seen the reports of the arrest of several former presidential candidates for attempting to carry out peaceful demonstrations in Kampala that were designed to highlight rising oil and food prices. We have also seen with great concern and regret the very serious and apparent mistreatment of one of those candidates, Dr. Besigye. We have expressed our concern about what appears to be harassment of President – of Dr. Besigye. I have, myself, spoken to the Ugandan foreign minister about this and have urged that the Ugandan Government act both in a responsible and civil fashion in dealing with the arrest of individuals attempting to carry out peaceful protests.
QUESTION: When did you speak to the foreign minister about that, and was that specifically about the case that you referenced?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY CARSON: I spoke to the foreign minister today, and it was specifically concerning the apparent ill treatment of Dr. Besigye as well as the government’s reaction to peaceful protests by others.
QUESTION: And did the foreign minister give you any reason to believe that the government would seek to treat such people better and to show greater respect toward peaceful protesters?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY CARSON: He did indeed. He said that he hoped that President Museveni would be meeting with the opposition political parties and leaders on Tuesday of next week. I urged political outreach and reconciliation to resolve the differences that the government has with opposition leaders. I also encouraged that there be a scope for civil peaceful protests and that government reaction to those protests should be tempered, responsible, and civil.
MS. FULTON: Okay. And thank you for your time, Assistant Secretary Carson.
QUESTION: Thank you.