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Remarks by Rolf Olson, Embassy Political Counselor – HHF Alumni Association Annual Seminar 2022
November 18, 2022

Promoting Electoral Integrity in Nigeria: Prospects and Challenges

Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen, my fellow Speakers, good morning.  I’d like to stand on existing protocols in giving you a warm welcome to this event, and greetings on behalf of Ambassador Mary Beth Leonard.  It’s great to be with you today.

First, I’d like to thank the Executive Committee of the Humphrey Fellowship Alumni Organization for organizing this event and for all that you do in order to keep the many distinguished Humphrey alumni connected to each other through a forum like this.  Early in my diplomatic career I served in the Public Affairs Section at one of our embassies in South America, and thus worked directly on the Humphrey Fellowship program and identifying suitable candidates for it.  The Humphrey Fellowship is one of the U.S. government’s initiatives I have the most pride in, as it is designed to bring together some of the most capable and creative professionals from all around the world to the United States to engage with some of our own most capable individuals.  I congratulate all members of the Alumni Association, both for your original participation in the fellowship, and also for your ongoing commitment to engagement that can help resolve some the world’s pressing challenges.

It’s also a particular delight for me to speak at an event centered on a program founded in honor of former Vice President, Senator, and Mayor of the City of Minneapolis, Hubert H. Humphrey.  He was a son of Minnesota and the Midwest.  Although I was born and raised on the East Coast of the United States, and have called the Washington, DC area home for almost all of my adult life (when I am not posted overseas), if I were to borrow the Nigerian terminology I would be an “indigene” of Minnesota, as both of my parents were born and raised in small-town Minnesota, as were their parents, and many of my relatives still live there.  Vice President Humphrey came from very humble roots – he was born in a room above the pharmacy that his father ran in a town of 600 people – and I believe epitomized one version of what can sometimes be called “the American Dream.”  He also firmly believed and promoted greater understanding among the world’s nations and peoples.  I was only seven years old when he died more than four decades ago, but I remember the moment because my parents were quite affected by it.  The Humphrey Fellowship is a fitting tribute to a remarkable individual.

I know we’re here to talk about the national elections coming in Nigeria in a few months’ time, but I’d like to take a moment to note that, as I expect most of you know, we have very much been in the midst of election season in the U.S. in recent weeks with our midterm elections.  Whenever we go through a midterm election cycle – when control of Congress for the subsequent two years is determined, but there is no presidential election – one of the most enjoyable post-election topics in the news is discussion of the individuals who were just elected.

And as you probably saw in the news here last week, there were at least eight Americans of Nigerian descent who were elected to various government positions at the state level last week.  A particular shout-out to Esther Agbaje, who was reelected to the Minnesota State Legislature, where she represents a district in the city of Minneapolis – the very city where Hubert Humphrey was once mayor.  We would like to echo the congratulations that President Buhari expressed to them last week on their achievement and their commitment to building a better community around them, in whatever job, in whatever city or state they may be.

This is my second time serving as a diplomat at the U.S. Mission to Nigeria; I served as the Political/Economic Section Chief at our Consulate in Lagos from 2011 to 2014.  I have been in my current position as Political Counselor at our Embassy in Abuja for about 15 months now.  With that experience I have some perspectives that I’d like to share with you today.

As we enter the final 100 days before the presidential and National Assembly elections on February 25, and Nigerians and those of us in the international community who follow Nigeria closely consider the challenges and potential problems that might arise, I do think it’s appropriate to take a moment to recognize how quickly and effectively Nigeria has become a democracy that is fully accustomed to regular elections and transfers of power at the national and state levels.  In just 23 years since democracy was restored, Nigeria has successfully reached and passed several major milestones in a democratic path.  I know you as Nigerians know these facts, but I think it’s helpful to recap them and acknowledge them as a group.  1) After President Obasanjo’s election in 1999 and reelection in 2003, a debate over whether to enable a third term for him was peacefully conducted and resolved, without any change to the two-term limit, thereby enabling the election of President Yar’Adua in 2007; 2) Following the death of President Yar’Adua in 2010, a peaceful and constitutional transition of power to a vice president took place – and to a vice president that, of course, came from a different region and faith background; 3) When defeated in the 2015 election by then-candidate Buhari, President Jonathan quickly conceded and facilitated another smooth transfer of power, in this case to an opposition candidate; 4) President Buhari has reemphasized the importance of term limits in Nigeria by affirming early on his intention of adhering to the two-term limit and ensuring a credible election process to choose his successor; and 5) term limits at all levels of government have become a fully accepted, almost routine part of Nigeria’s governing structure, without any fuss or controversy.  While not all democracies have term limits, and some countries (like mine) have them for some offices and not for others, term limits do ensure one of the fundamental characteristics of successful democracies: the regular rotation of power.

Taken collectively, that’s a remarkable set of achievements for a country barely two decades into its current democratic experience.  The United States is more than two centuries into our democratic experience, and we still have our challenges – no country is ever going to get it all right.  So for all our discussion of the challenges ahead in the electoral process, I believe it is imperative to acknowledge what has been accomplished in Nigeria in this context in less than a quarter-century.  I have been posted to six countries overseas and worked on issues of democracy in many more, and you should not take for granted these achievements – there are far too many places where the idea of readily transferring authority to an opponent who has vanquished you causes significant resistance at a minimum – or is otherwise unthinkable.  These mileposts that Nigeria has passed are significant ones, and Nigerians can and should be proud of what has been achieved, even as you seek to reach the other mileposts that are ahead of you.

The success that Nigeria has had in getting this far in the electoral context has depended above all else, in my view, on one thing: people.  It is easy – and appropriate – when thinking about elections to focus on the candidates, the campaigns, the issues, the law, etc.  But the conduct of credible, transparent, free, and fair elections depends on people, hundreds of thousands of them in a country the size of Nigeria, working incredibly hard for an extended period of time, with limited resources, a fixed and compressed schedule, countless legal requirements, constant demands from many sources, and the pressure of knowing their work contributes directly to the success or failure of the country’s democracy.  We barely have to think about election workers when they do their job effectively, because everything goes smoothly.  But let us take a moment here to celebrate them and to thank them.  If I have my math right, well over a million Nigerians will be working on election day to facilitate the process – from the Youth Service Corps members working at the polls, to the security services guarding the polling units and patrolling, to members of civil society and political parties working to monitor the voting and ballot-counting processes, to INEC officials at all levels, up to Chairman Yakubu himself.  Nigeria’s democracy rides on their backs, and we should thank them for their tireless efforts, many of which are already underway.  So from the U.S. Embassy, we salute your efforts and your resilience, and we wish you all the best in the long days and nights you have ahead of you.

And I would like to take the opportunity to note the strong support of the United States for the work of INEC Chairman Yakubu, INEC National Commissioners and the Resident Electoral Commissioners spread across the 36 states and the FCT, and the thousands of full-time staff of INEC.  The U.S. has long supported INEC through funding for technical assistance, and we are gladly doing so again in this election cycle.  We have been disappointed by the stream of unproductive criticism directed at INEC and its officials in recent months, and which only seems to have expanded of late.  I’m not talking about good-faith criticisms designed to elicit improvements to the process; Chairman Yakubu himself would surely acknowledge INEC is not a perfect institution, that it will make its share of mistakes.  And we have heard him state that he is open to dialogue, to recommendations, to perspectives from parties, candidates, citizens, and other interested parties – and he has shown that.  We have been deeply impressed by the commitment, the evenhandedness, and the diligence exhibited by INEC thus far in the election cycle, and we are confident they will continue to demonstrate those traits through the election cycle.  While nobody needs to forfeit their right to express legitimate concerns about the process or about the conduct of INEC, the rhetoric attacking INEC’s motives or overall competence is unhelpful.  Nigeria is lucky to have an institution like INEC guarding its most cherished constitutional right: to cast a ballot for the party of your choice in democratic elections.

Allow me to emphasize some important messages from the United States government about the upcoming elections.  It never ceases to amaze me how often we see comments, claims, and assertions from people in social and traditional media about what our supposed objectives are in the elections, which candidate or party we favor, how to interpret certain statements or actions of ours in terms of what it means about our intentions are perceptions.  In reality, I think it quite simple to interpret us, especially when it comes to the elections. We always try to be clear in our messages, so let me be clear here on several important points:

  • The United States does not support any individual candidate or party in this election cycle (or for that matter, in any other upcoming election). Our interest is in supporting credible and transparent elections that reflect the will of Nigerian voters, in a process that is conducted peacefully.  Full stop.
  • We look to all Nigerians to reject the use of violence and inflammatory rhetoric before, during, and after election day. When we say “all” Nigerians we mean all:  politicians, candidates, students, leaders of religious, traditional, community, youth, and business organizations and entities – everyone has a role to play in this effort.  Even a small number of troublemakers can cause substantial havoc to an election.  It takes a comprehensive effort to try to eliminate the use of violence and inflammatory rhetoric.
  • Individuals seeking to undermine the democratic process, including through violence, may be found ineligible for visas to the United States. We have imposed visa restrictions in the past against those responsible for, or complicit in, undermining the democratic process, and remain fully willing to do so again in the context of the upcoming elections.
  • It is essential that candidates and their parties – as well as all of their supporters seeking to help them win election – refrain from brash assertions of victory that suggest defeat is only possible if there is fraud. There is no true democratic election in which the outcome is foretold.  Before I became a diplomat I used to work in American politics in Washington, and I have witnessed numerous elections in which a particular candidate seemed certain to win, based on some combination of various factors – a very favorable partisan identification of voters in the district, city, or state; polling data that appeared to show a very large, insurmountable lead over the opponent; or perhaps the fact that the candidate was the incumbent, who had been elected to that same office, possibly several times.  But in some cases, the very unexpected happens.  That’s democracy.  And candidates and parties that seek to run for public office must accept one fundamental truth – losing is always possible.  If you’re not willing to accept the possibility that you might be defeated, then you should not be running for office in the first place.  We therefore call on all parties, candidates, and their supporters to avoid language that tries to “guarantee” victory.  It is entirely reasonable to feel confident about your or your candidate’s chances – it’s up to you if you want to spend precious campaign time being confident rather than focusing on the hard work necessary to actually win – but no democracy, Nigeria’s included, is well-served if millions of its citizens believe only one legitimate outcome on election day is possible.  Steer clear of that kind of rhetoric, and Nigeria’s electoral process will be much the better for it.

Finally, a few words about Election Integrity, given that is the theme of the event today.  One of the reasons to be hopeful about the elections in February and March is the enactment earlier this year of the Electoral Act Amendment Law, and we commend the National Assembly for having passed it and President Buhari for having signed it.  As politicians and civil society organizations across the spectrum have noted, this new law helps enshrine a number of important steps in ensuring that elections in Nigeria genuinely reflect the willing of the people.  I will highlight in particular two features of Nigeria’s current electoral system that we believe constitute significant steps forward.  First is the Bi-Modal Voter Accreditation System, or “BVAS”.  One of the most critical steps in conducting credible elections, perhaps quite obviously, is confirming that the individual standing at the polling unit attempting to vote is who they say they are.  The BVAS virtually eliminates the possibility of any systematic effort to replace real voters with impostors.  It has not yet been used on a national scale – only in the off-cycle gubernatorial and other elections in the past year or so – and we encourage INEC to make every effort to provide the training necessary to ensure its smooth operation on election day.

The other feature is the electronic transmission of results from individual polling units of the vote results sheet.  In one of my most recent overseas diplomatic assignments, I witnessed firsthand the benefit of having this kind of system to help ensure that the announced results reflect the actual results.  By sending a photo image of a results sheet itself, instead of raw data that one might find in a spreadsheet, for example, it makes manipulation of the results that much more complicated.  Sometimes the way to make an election safer, ironically, is to make it harder for those who have ill intentions to succeed in their plans.  The BVAS and the electronic transmission of vote results sheets are incredibly important steps forward in seeking to ensure the integrity of Nigerian elections, and we welcome both the Electoral Act’s empowerment of INEC to employ the technical and other means it deems necessary, secure, and appropriate to ensure credible elections – and INEC’s willingness to do so.

But ultimately the success of the 2023 elections will be dependent less on technology than on what I mentioned before: people, and the activities in which they are engaged.  The most advanced, cutting edge technology in the world does not help if it is not employed correctly, competently, and with the right intentions.  As we thank and cheer on the million-plus Nigerians who will be actively engaged in facilitating or carrying out the elections in a few months, we call on everyone else to support them in their endeavors, to resist harassing or undermining them, and to play your own role as not just a participant, but a guardian of Nigerian democracy.

The 2023 elections are a pivotal opportunity for Nigeria – Africa’s most populous country and largest economy – to solidify its place as a democratic leader in Africa.  We look forward to a successful, peaceful process, that reflects the will of the Nigerian people.

I’d like to close today with a quote from Hubert Humphrey.  In this speech, he talked about a term that we still use regularly in the United States today: “the good old days” – which refers to a non-specific previous period in history, whether in the life of an individual, or a country – that is viewed as a better, usually simpler time than what life is like today.  He apparently didn’t care for that term, and the way he explained that is something that I think can resonate with just about any country in the world, including Nigeria as it approaches the 2023 elections: “The good old days were never that good, believe me.  The good new days are today, and better days are coming tomorrow. Our greatest songs are still unsung.”

Thank you for your time and attention today.