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Observers Give Nigeria Election Mixed Reviews - 2003-04-22


Two international observer teams have issued their statements on the Nigerian elections. The Commonwealth group of nations gave the poll generally positive marks, while European Union observers condemned it in harsh language.

Chief Commonwealth observer Salim Ahmed Salim issued a statement saying that in most places the election was credible, peaceful, and orderly. Like other international and domestic observer teams, the Commonwealth team says there were serious irregularities and fraud in the southeast part of the country, particularly in Rivers State.

But the Commonwealth observers' mandate was to determine whether overall, the elections were held in conditions that would allow the people to express their will. They concluded that in most of the country, that was true.

The European Union observers were much less positive.

"The presidential and gubernatorial elections, in our view, were marred by serious irregularities and fraud," said EU chief observer Max van den Berg. "In a certain number of states, minimum standards for democratic elections were not met."

The EU observers said there were serious irregularities throughout the country and outright fraud in 11 states. They said one-quarter of their 118 observers directly witnessed one or more cases of successful or attempted election fraud.

Like other observer groups, both foreign and domestic, the EU team singled out the polling in the southeast as the most flawed. But they also said they saw irregularities in several key northern states, including Kaduna and Katsina.

Mr. van den Berg said the guilty parties often did not even try to disguise what they were doing.

"The EU Observation Mission observers witnessed and obtained evidence of widespread election fraud in certain states," he said. "Many instances of ballot box stuffing, just bluntly in the face of our observers, a lot of times even without even hiding anything, changing of results and other serious irregularities were observed in six states."

At least one senior European diplomat thought the EU statement was simply too harsh. He said it failed to take into account the relative youth of Nigeria's democracy and the country's inexperience with holding democratic elections.

This is the first time in 20 years that a civilian government has held elections in Nigeria. The country has been run by military dictators for most of its independent history.

The main opposition candidate for president, Muhammadu Buhari, has rejected the results of the poll as rigged.

But he is a northerner, with very few supporters in the southern states where the election was most flawed. It is not clear how the alleged fraud would have affected his overall standing in the poll. It is also not clear what action his party will take.

The Nigerian system provides for electoral tribunals to deal with legal challenges to the poll.

Both the European Union and the Commonwealth urged the government and people of Nigeria to use those legal channels to make sure those responsible for election fraud are held accountable.