Experts Debate Nigerian Election Fairness

By Andrew Kreig / Project Director

A high-level panel of Nigerian experts on April 19 agreed – with one exception – that the presidential election in Africa’s most populous nation achieved largely credible results despite protest riots now occurring because of fraud allegations.

At a unique forum in Washington, DC of global importance, all but one of the assembled government and private experts praised as credible the ballot-counting that gives incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan a 2-1 victory over Gen. Muhammadu Buhari, a former chief of state who emerged as the chief opposition candidate.

That confidence in the election results is despite fatal riots erupting in Buhari’s Muslim home region as his supporters protest what they regard as rigged results.

“The election was free, fair and credible,” Build Up Nigeria Project Founder Reno Omokri, right, told a packed conference audience of Nigerian and United States opinion leaders at the forum, “not because of the government but because of the youth.” 

Omokri, who agreed to be a guest on my radio show "Washington Update" Thursday, ascribed Jonathan’s valid re-election to young people using social media and other high-tech to achieve fair results. Omokri's differed sharply from that of his “mentor” sitting next to him, Nasir El-Rufai, former minister of the Federal Capital Territory surrounding the nation’s capital of Abuja.

El-Rufai travelled from Nigeria to present a paper arguing to the standing room-only audience that authorities cheated in their vote counts to ensure Jonathan’s victory. “In Rivers State,” he said in citing reports, “the Governor Rotimi Amaechi complained of low voter turnout, yet the final results showed 76% turnout, out of which 99% voted for the ruling party!” El-Rufai, 51, portrayed at right below, is a Muslim from the north who is a longtime member of the governing People's Democratic Party (PDP) who says he has been seeking recently to foster a strong challenge to PDP to improve the country's governance and elections.

Yet seven other speakers with prestigious backgrounds in U.S. or Nigerian government generally spoke favorably about the election process during the forum, which was held at the headquarters of the Atlantic Council in cooperation with Carnegie Mellon University and Africare.

The Atlantic Council's Dr. J. Peter Pham, for example, said the elections proceeded more credibly than others in Nigeria he has examined since 1999. Pham is director of the council's Africa Center, author of more than 300 essays and and multiple books, and a close student of Nigerian elections. He said he used to vote Republican in a Chicago precinct where nearly 100 % of other voters were Democrats, and so he knows first-hand that it's possible to have lopsided outcomes in democratic systems.

Even more vehement was Oronto Douglas, a senior aide to President Jonathan and prominent human rights attorney and environmental activist. He flew from Nigeria to Washington especially for the panel, as did El-Rufai. Douglas said now is the time for Buhari and his supporters to accept their loss as a legitimate reflection of the public opinion. “To call for lynching,” as Douglas claims Buhari did earlier this week, “is to fan the embers of violence.”

El-Rufai denied that the Douglas quotation was accurate, or reflected Buhari’s views. “This is not some ruffian who wants people killed,” El-Rufai said. “The man was president of Nigeria 25 years ago.” Concurring was former U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria Jendayi Frazer, currently a professor at Carnegie Mellon and director of its Center for International Policy and Innovation. She said Buhari “tried to make a statement to stop the current violence” in northern regions”  ̶  and he was pelted by rocks.”

Also, Dr. Ade Adefuye, Nigeria’s ambassador to the United States, portrayed above, expressed confidence that, “There’s no difference between our strategic interests…and those of the United States.”

I attended because of the historic importance of Nigeria’s quadrennial elections, which is particularly relevant to the public affairs radio show I co-host and the Eagle View Capital Strategies consultancy I lead. The rule of law in Africa's most strategically important country is relevant also, of course, to our mission at the Justice Integrity Project.

In February, Eagle View organized a conference at the National Press Club focused on investment opportunities in Nigeria, particularly in the “Nollywood” video industry and other new media. The keynote was Dr. Pat Utomi, director of the prestigious Lagos Business School and former chairman of the government’s film advisory board, as well as a presidential candidate in this month’s elections. Utomi campaigned on a platform of advocating economic development and corruption-free elections, and spoke extensively during his Washington trip to State Department, congressional and NGO opinion leaders and the news media to foster strong international oversight of this month’s elections process.

Ultimately, Utomi, right, dropped out of the presidential race in order to encourage a more unified opposition to Jonathan’s People’s Democratic Party, which has long dominated Nigerian government. HUtomi’s speech, written in advance of the elections and voicing his disappointment with the process, is entitled, “Walking My Talk: A Cry for My Beloved Country.” 

His speech is here, with a news report here. Utomi was a scheduled speaker for the April 19 forum in Washington, but cancelled this week because of he remains active in Nigeria fast-evolving political situation. The factors include the fatal riots, court actions challenging the results, setting up the new administration and behind-the-scenes reconciliation efforts. In addition, the nation is holding elections next week for state governorships. A Christian from the south who is widely published in Nigeria and elsewhere, Utomi sent a copy of his speech to the forum's organizers. His speech said, in essence, that the outward voter intimidation was less than in the previous two presidential elections but warned of serious problems ahead in future elections:

The last three elections have been remarkable in how public officers abuse the treasury for election purposes. In a country where state media is at full disposal of the incumbents, the additional liberal use of public money just makes it impossible for the message of the opponent to get heard.

Add to this, the critical role of cash in ensuring you have party agents at thousands of polling stations, not to talk of bribing voters, and you can discount the likelihood of our democracy stopping an incumbent who does not perform.

Author and former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria John Campbell appeared last month on "Washington Update" to discuss the importance of the elections. A fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, Campbell last fall published, Nigeria: Dancing on the Brink, a book describing Nigeria’s pivotal importance for Africa and U.S. interests there. The shows are co-hosted Scott Draughon, founder of the My Technology Lawyer radio network that broadcasts the shows worldwide live noon (EST) on Thursdays, making it available by archive shortly after airtime. We invite listener questions this week as we continue the series with featured speakers from the post-election forum described above.

Our guest Omokri founded the Build Up Nigeria Project as a non-government private initiative to foster Nigeria’s image via a variety of multi-media methods, including short films, documentaries and Facebook engagement. Omokri has a Facebook following of more than 21,000 people. A prolific filmmaker, he has also collaborated with Joe Trippi, the U.S. Democratic party strategist who managed Howard Dean’s iconic Presidential campaign in 2004 and who also spoke at the Eagle View investment conference in February. Another confirmed speaker for the show is Douglas, President Jonathan’s aide. Douglas, like several panelists, left shortly after the Washington discussion to return to Nigeria. The president’s advisor and a scholar, portrayed at right in a previous interview, has been listed as one of the 20 most influential scholars in the world because of his environmental and human rights work.

To access the Washington Update radio show, click on its website. Listener questions for the guests are via email or by phone: (866) 685-7469.

We’ll post on our site further background materials about the radio guests, as well as speakers at the April 19 forum. It was moderated by former U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria Robin Sanders, who is now international affairs advisor to Africare. The audio and eventually the video for the impressive two-hour forum is here.

In summing up, El-Rufai said he is rushing back to Nigeria ASAP to persuade fellow Buhari supporters to pursue through court action their protests of the election. He said court protests are necessary even though the candidate Buhari, at age 69, has given up on the courts after unsuccessful 13-month and 27-month challenges to irregularities in two of his previous presidential elections. “The scenario I see is one in which, at best, the Jonathan administration will muddle through the next four years,” El-Rufai says.

But Douglas expressed more of the consensus view of the panelists when he described an election process as favorably impressing international observers and the public. “It’s a new day," he concluded, "for Nigeria.”

Contact the author Andrew Kreig or comment


Listed below are selected articles on Nigeria's elections and broader topics of legal reform and their  the most important political, security and media factors. See the full articles by visiting the Project home page's section on News Reports, and clicking the link.

Associated Press/Yahoo, Charred corpses line road after Nigeria vote riots, Jon Gambrell, April 20, 2011. Burned corpses with machete wounds lay in roads and smoke rose above this city where rioting broke out again Tuesday among Muslim opposition supporters who were angered by the announcement that the Christian incumbent president had won reelection Saturday.

British Broadcasting Corp., Riots break out in the northern cities of Kano and Kaduna as presidential poll results show Goodluck Jonathan is set to win, Komla Dumor, April 18, 2011. Riots have broken out across northern Nigeria as presidential poll results show Goodluck Jonathan is set to win. Homes of supporters of Mr Jonathan, the incumbent, were attacked in the cities of Kano and Kaduna. Young supporters of Muhammadu Buhari, who is popular in the north, have been clashing with police and military. They feel that the elections have been rigged in some areas of the south.

Sahara Reporters, Election 2011: Propaganda Battle Shifts To Washington, DC, As Diplomats Pressure Buhari To Halt Protesters, Site Administrator, April 20, 2011. As violence spreads and worsens in the Northern part of Nigeria in reaction to perceived irregularities in last Saturday’s presidential polls, the INEC-declared “President-elect” Goodluck Jonathan has stepped up his campaign to put a gloss of credibility on the elections. Mr. Jonathan’s handlers are focusing on selling his message to an increasingly jittery international audience. The US state department in a press statement today noted that the elections which had been widely celebrated as the freest and fairest by the Jonathan team and supporters "was far from perfect". The US government listed, "under-age" voters, violence and intimidation, ballot stuffing, and inordinately high turnout in some areas of the country" as discernible flaws of the presidential election.