By JOHNNIE CARSON
On April 9, 2011, Nigeria held the first of a series of elections that will impact the direction of Africa’s most populous country and second-largest economy, and set the course for the future of democracy in sub-Saharan Africa.
What we have seen so far in West Africa this year is promising – peaceful and credible elections in Burkina Faso, Benin and Niger, and the triumph of democracy over dictatorship in Cote d’Ivoire.
Some forty years ago, I began my first tour as a newly-minted Foreign Service Officer in Lagos. Arriving just seven years after its independence, the Nigeria I found was one locked in a brutal civil war with an uncertain future. I am proud of Nigeria’s achievements over the last decades, and its role as a leader in Africa and the world.
On April 9, I observed along with 17 other U.S. Embassy and Consulate teams, Nigeria’s National Assembly elections. We were heartened by what we saw. In sharp contrast to its elections of 2007, Nigeria was demonstrating that it can hold credible elections that allow the Nigerian people a meaningful opportunity to elect their leaders.
Together with U.S. Ambassador Terence McCulley, I visited polling stations in the Federal Capital Territory and adjacent Nasarawa and Kaduna States. I was struck by how well Nigeria’s civil society and the democratic institutions worked together and the broad-based and enthusiastic participation of Nigerian citizens exercising their right to choose their leaders. The commitment and professionalism of the young people of the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) who performed extraordinarily well incarrying out their important work is an encouraging sign of Nigeria’s bright future. I also saw the incredible dedication of Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) Chair Attahiru Jega, who remained steadfast in pulling off the round despite the initial false-start on April 2. Deemed a “general success” despite delayed delivery of election materials, the presence of "under-age" voters, and some incidents of violence, Nigeria has the chance to do evenbetter by holding a fairer, freer, and more peaceful Presidential election on April 16. I urge election and security officials to build upon this foundation for an even stronger and more peaceful showing on April 16 and April 26.
Times are changing. Social mediaplayed an important role in thiscooperation. INEC and votersexchanged messages via ShortMessaging Service (SMS) texts,Twitter, and Facebook, with cameraimages sent from cellular telephones, all to promote a more transparent process, to verify adherence to correct procedures, and to alertauthorities and the media to poten-tial challenges. This Saturday, I will join Nigerians in watching @inec-nigeria and @swiftcount on Twitter as they transparently work towards a credible election process. Democracy is important to all ofus. No one person or any singleelectoral event can transform anentrenched political culture. Sadly,this past weekend some opponentsof democracy tried to derail theprocess by resorting to thuggery andviolence. Political intimidation andviolence have no place in a demo-cratic society. As we move forward, Nigeria’spolitical leaders - and those whoaspire to lead - must refrain from inflammatory rhetoric or acts of intimidation. Any election violenceis unacceptable, as it casts a shadowover the entire electoral process. TheUnited States not only condemnsviolence and intimidation, but weare prepared to take appropriate
measures against those individualswho violate basic democratic norms,as we have done in places such asCote d’Ivoire, Zimbabwe, and Madagascar..
The 2011 Presidential, NationalAssembly, Gubernatorial, and StateAssembly elections provide an his-toric opportunity for Nigeria tobecome a model for the rest of Africaand the world, especially for thosecitizens demanding democracy intheir countries. All Africans deservesmooth, peaceful, transparent, andcredible elections. The conduct of thefirst round of elections indicates thatNigeria is ready to be that example.
We stand with the Nigerian peoplein seeking free, fair, and credibleelections and I challenge allNigerians to work together witheven more patience and determina-tion this weekend to produce leaderselected by the Nigerian people.
•Ambassador Johnnie Carson, isU.S. Assistant Secretary of State for