- The Washington Times - Friday, March 27, 2015

The top House Republican on foreign policy says the stakes are high in this weekend’s presidential election in Nigeria — the largest economy in Africa — where the contest between incumbent Goodluck Jonathan and opposition leader Muhammadu Buhari stands to impact the future of democracy across the continent.

Concerns have soared during recent weeks over the prospect for terrorist attacks by the Nigerian jihadist group Boko Haram as voters head to the polls on Saturday. But international observers are also worried violence could break out between supporters of the two candidates.

U.S. Rep. Ed Royce, California Republican and chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, says that if the election comes off peacefully and is deemed to be fair — regardless of who comes out on top — it will “send an important message throughout the continent about the strength of democratic values.”

Polls show the race as the closest in Nigeria’s history, with Mr. Jonathan, an outspoken Christian, facing a strong challenge from Mr. Buharia, a Muslim and former military ruler of the nation.

Nigeria’s predominantly Christian and oil-rich southern delta is seen as a key link to the global energy market. But poverty grips millions of the nation’s citizens, especially in the mainly Muslim north, and analysts describe corruption as rampant in the government despite efforts by Mr. Jonathan to combat it during his first term, which began in 2010.

At the same time, the rise of the shadowy — al Qaeda-inspired and now Islamic State-aligned — Boko Haram group has thrust Nigeria into the global headlines during recent years. U.S. intelligence officials say the group is trying to carve out an Islamic caliphate in territory that spans the borders of northern Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon and Niger.

All four of those nations are engaged in a coordinated military campaign to contain Boko Haram, which is listed by Washington as a global terrorist organization and has vowed to disrupt this weekend’s election.

U.S. officials say Washington is invested in efforts to counter Boko Haram and to promote a free and fair election. A fact sheet circulated by the State Department on Friday said USAID — in partnership with the Britain’s Department for International Development — has provided $68.8 million in assistance to such efforts since 2010.

The document made no specific mention of Boko Haram, but said a “USAID-supported elections security adviser has been deployed” to help with election security operations in Nigeria.

“More than 70 million Nigerians head to the polls this weekend to decide what appears to be a neck-and-neck presidential election,” Mr. Royce said in a statement on Friday.

“I observed Nigeria’s historic election in 1999, and have felt that sort of tension first-hand,” he said. “The difference in 2015 is that Boko Haram is determined to mar election day with its killing. It’s good that the two top candidates have pledged to respect the outcome and refrain from violence.”

“The winner,” the congressman said, “will have to immediately deal with major economic challenges and the brutal violence and destabilization of Boko Haram.”

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