- Associated Press - Thursday, January 10, 2019

UNITED NATIONS (AP) - The United States said Thursday that Nigeria’s upcoming national elections will be “a critical test of democracy” in the country and the region, and expressed concern at reports of intimidation and partisanship by government security forces.

U.S. deputy ambassador Jonathan Cohen told a U.N. Security Council meeting on West Africa that the Trump administration is also concerned about heightened insecurity in Nigeria, the inability of disabled and displaced people to vote, “and the risk that widespread vote buying could challenge the integrity of the electoral process.”

He urged Nigerian authorities, political parties, civil society and community leaders to address these risks and ensure that the Feb. 16 elections are free, fair and peaceful.

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari is seeking a second term. The main opposition challenger is veteran politician Atiku Abubakar, but Oby Ezekwesili, a former World Bank vice president who led the global campaign to free Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram extremists, is also among the dozens of other candidates running.

The winner will lead Africa’s biggest crude oil producer and the continent’s most populous country.

The recent surge in attacks by Boko Haram extremists and the offshoot Islamic State West Africa Province has caused alarm in Nigeria and posed a major challenge for Buhari. He took office in 2015 vowing to fight corruption and to defeat Boko Haram, which split after one faction pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group.

Cohen said the United States continues to support Nigeria’s goal of free, fair, transparent and peaceful elections “that reflect the will of the Nigerian people.”

“Twenty years since the country’s return to democratic rule, the upcoming elections provide Nigerians with an opportunity to shape the future of their country and further solidify its place as a democratic leader in Africa,” he said.

Cohen said the U.S. is helping Nigeria strengthen its democratic institutions and process “through diplomacy, robust public engagement - including with youth and civil society - and democracy and governance programs.”

Mohamed Ibn Chambas, the U.N. envoy for West Africa and the Sahel, told the Security Council that “tensions are high” ahead of Nigeria’s Feb. 16 presidential and parliamentary elections and March 2 state assembly elections.

But he said “prospects for peaceful and credible elections have been increased” after many political parties signed a National Peace Accord on Dec. 11, committing to hold a peaceful vote.

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