News / Africa

Nigerian Acting President Promises Better Elections

Nico Colombant

Nigeria's acting President Goodluck Jonathan has assured American officials in Washington he is working quickly to improve often chaotic elections in Africa's most populous nation.  He also downplayed concerns Nigeria could become an international terrorist threat.  

Three years ago, when he was sworn in as Nigeria's vice president, Goodluck Jonathan was a politician from the oil-rich Niger Delta known for little more than his interesting name.

He became acting president two months ago, after a prolonged absence of the controversially-elected President Umaru Musa Yar'Adua due to illness.  Last month, Mr. Jonathan dismissed the previous Cabinet and named a new one.

Monday, Mr. Jonathan was in Washington at the Council on Foreign Relations, explaining he intends to work quickly, especially on improving elections.

"There are certain things that we can achieve even in the next six months, certain things that are quite disturbing to the country, especially the issues of conducting elections that are always questionable," said Goodluck Jonathan. "These are human issues you do not need more than a year to solve it.  So I promise Nigerians and the rest of the world that the 2011 elections in Nigeria will be credible."

Mr. Jonathan also dismissed characterizations of Nigeria as a terrorist threat, following the arrest last year of a young Nigerian man, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, accused of trying to blow up a U.S.-bound plane.

"Nigeria as a nation believes in global peace," said Mr. Jonathan. "Internationally that is our strongest focus.  People in the world must live in peace.  We do not believe that one individual or a group of individuals should be a terror to the rest of human society."

Mr. Jonathan will be in Washington several more days meeting with other U.S. officials, lawmakers and the local Nigerian community.

Sunday, Mr. Jonathan and several Nigerian officials paid a courtesy visit to President Obama.  The leaders discussed efforts to combat corruption, terrorism, deadly sectarian violence and improving elections.

The visit took place as dozens of leaders from around the world came to Washington to attend a Nuclear Security Summit and as U.S. officials showed increased interest in helping Nigeria.

Last week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton welcomed the signing of an agreement to set up a U.S.-Nigerian bi-national commission.  She said the first goal would be to improve elections.

"The commission will focus on electoral reform and election preparations in order to achieve free, fair and peaceful elections in Nigeria in 2011 and beyond," said Hillary Clinton.

An expert in U.S.-Nigerian relations, retired professor Ignatius Ukpabi, is not surprised by this flurry of bilateral activity.  He says Nigeria's high oil output makes it an important U.S. partner.  He also dismissed concerns about terrorism coming from Nigeria, and welcomed U.S. help for better elections.

"They want Nigeria to be a democratic country, that other countries should actually emulate," said  Ignatius Ukpabi. "I think elections in Nigeria should be something that when somebody is elected in Nigeria, we should know that whomever has won the election is actually the person who won the election, not by any other means."

U.S. officials have also called for changing top Nigerian election officials.  The last vote in 2007 was marred by voter intimidation, widespread violence during campaigning and voting, as well as accusations by the opposition of fraud during vote counting.

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