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Multi-Stakeholder Dialogue on Nigeria’s Elections:  Fostering Youth Action for Peace and Stability
Remarks by Ambassador Leonard
February 1, 2023

Good morning and thank you for that kind introduction.  I am so pleased to have the opportunity to speak today at this Youth Action Conference organized by the Building Blocks for Peace Foundation and led by U.S. Exchange alumnus and Mandela Washington Fellow, Rafiu Lawal.  We are happy to support you and your organization’s efforts to work with young people to build peace and manage conflict in Nigeria.

First, let me start by sharing with you, as I’ve shared with other Nigerian groups, my government’s view on the upcoming elections in Nigeria.

The United States supports transparent and credible elections, that reflect the will of the people, in a process that is conducted peacefully.  The 2023 elections are a pivotal opportunity for Nigeria – Africa’s most populous country and its largest economy – to solidify its place as a democratic leader in Africa.  We favor no candidate; we favor that open, transparent, and peaceful process.

Elections are the foundation of democracy and the basis for the legitimate transfer of power.  I think it is valuable for us all to reflect on the fact that, since 1999, Nigerian voters have successfully exercised their democratic power six times to determine the country’s next leader.  For more than two decades, Nigeria has demonstrated to Africa and the entire world its strong commitment to peaceful, credible, and transparent elections.  At a time when many places in West Africa are challenging things like term limits and democratic processes, for Nigeria these rules of the democratic game are deeply internalized and accepted.

President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris are personally committed to strengthening democracy in the United States and around the world.  At the invitation of the Nigerian government, the Biden Administration is advancing our longstanding partnership with the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and Nigerian civil society organizations.  Through USAID, the U.S. is providing $25 million in elections-related support to Nigeria for the 2023 election cycle.

The United States has full confidence in INEC and its ability to organize and conduct credible and transparent elections.  We saw INEC’s capabilities on display during the recent successful off-cycle elections in Ekiti and Osun, and we look forward to seeing that success extended nationwide during the February and March general elections.

Our confidence stems in part from last year’s signing by President Buhari and other elected leaders of the Electoral Act of 2022.  This key legislation strengthened Nigeria’s electoral system, for example, through the use of the Bimodal Voters Accreditation System (BVAS) for voter accreditation, and the electronic transmission of results.  These are proven methods to improve transparency and drastically reduce the potential for vote tampering.

The National Peace Committee also played an important role in strengthening Nigerian democracy when it encouraged the country’s 18 political parties to sign the Peace Accord on September 29.  I was among the many observers that day who were reassured to see the parties pledge to run peaceful campaigns without violence or hate rhetoric.  As election day nears, we urge those political parties to adhere to their peace commitment and the September 2022 pledge.  The candidates will soon have another opportunity to affirm their commitment to the democratic process, by signing the pre-election day peace accord, and accepting the results of the February 25 election.

The United States stands firm with Nigerian voters’ demand and desire for transparency and electoral integrity.  Individuals who undercut or undermine the democratic process in any way, including through intimidation and violence, may be found ineligible for visas to travel to the United States.  We took steps in the past to impose U.S. visa restrictions against anyone complicit in undermining the electoral process, and in fact Secretary of State Blinken announced just last week that we’re imposing sanctions linked to past such behaviors.  We will similarly deny or cancel visas for those who try to undermine the upcoming elections.  Visa records are confidential, so we won’t announce the identities of those subject to visa sanctions.  But I can tell you I am personally aware of people whose travel to the U.S. has been or will be blocked on these grounds.

We look to all Nigerians to speak out against the use of violence or inflammatory rhetoric.  Politicians and candidates have every right to challenge their opponents’ stance on issues, but the use of inflammatory rhetoric and intimidation, and irresponsible incitements to violence, are extremely harmful to the country and to public faith in elections.

It is also essential that candidates and their parties and supporters do not make brash predictions of victory or instantly claim fraud if they lose at the ballot box.  Candidates and parties that seek to run for public office must accept one fundamental truth – that losing is always possible.  If a candidate is not willing to accept the possibility that he or she might be defeated, then they probably should not be running for office in the first place.  There is no true democratic election in which the outcome is foretold.  In the United States, for example, we have seen numerous contests in which a particular candidate seemed certain to win, based on popular opinion or pre-election polling data, only for the votes to prove otherwise.  In many political races, voting outcomes are really tough to predict and the very unexpected can happen on Election Day.  Everyone needs to remember that the only polls that really matter are the ones INEC will count in late February and March.

Nigeria has one of the youngest populations in the world, with a median age of 18 and 70% of the population under 30.  So, I would like to conclude with a word to the young people here today, and around the country.  You have a vital role to play in determining the future of this country and I want to encourage every eligible young person across Nigeria to vote and make your voice heard on election day. You deserve to be confident that your vote will matter and will be counted accurately and in a transparent process.  And above all you have a fundamental stake in the outcome of an election that will shape policies and governance in Nigeria for years to come.

With that in mind, let me recall the remarks of President Biden at the December 2021 Summit for Democracy.  He said that democracy is hard and must be renewed at every step.  That is why the United States, as a member of a global community for democracy, is invested in supporting other democratic nations.  Nigerian friends, we stand with you as you approach this important election.  And we look forward to continued partnership with the Nigerian people and with the next administration — which will be the one that YOU elect.  Thank you.