In less than nine days to Nigeria’s presidential election, the US has dispatched ex-President Bill Clinton to meet with major contenders to negotiate a peace deal amidst political mudslinging and tension.
The US is wary of the recent furore caused by statements credited to the West, expressing concern over the credibility of the elections after President Muhammadu Buhari suspended the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Mr Walter Onnoghen, over corruption allegations.
Justice Onnoghen had accepted that he forgot to declare millions of dollars worth assets and was facing trial at the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT).
President Buhari hinged the suspension on the order of the tribunal, but the US, the European Union (EU) and the UK expressed reservations, prompting Nigeria to explain that it was necessary as Justice Onnoghen could not remain in office and be a judge in his own case.
The suspension also infuriated the opposition, which aligned with the West to call for fairness and return of the CJN.
Mr Clinton will meet President Buhari, the candidate of the All Progressives Congress (APC), and his main rival, Mr Atiku Abubakar, of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).
The meeting would come a day before the presidential election slated for February 16.
Scampering to defend themselves against APC's allegations of supporting the opposition and trying to interfere in the election in favour of PDP, the US and the UK, in separate statements, committed to their neutrality.
They also warned that they would not tolerate election offenders, threatening to withdraw visa to those found culpable and members of their families.
“We and other democratic nations, will be paying close attention to actions of individuals who interfere in the democratic process or instigate violence against the civilian population before, during, or after the elections.
“We will not hesitate to consider consequences – including visa restrictions – for those found to be responsible for election-related violence or undermining the democratic process. Under the US immigration law, certain violations may also lead to restrictions on family members,” the US embassy said in Abuja on Wednesday.
The UK government, also in a statement by its High Commission in Abuja, said: “We will be deploying an extensive observation mission for the forthcoming elections, including coordinating with the EU’s Election Observation Mission. Our monitors will in particular be looking out for any attempts to encourage or use violence to influence the elections, including on social media.
"We would like to remind all Nigerians that where the UK is aware of such attempts, this may have consequences for individuals. These could include their eligibility to travel to the UK, their ability to access UK based funds or lead to prosecution under international law.
"The UK is a friend and partner of Nigeria. We hope our continued support will play a role in helping Nigeria take a further step towards consolidating the progress made since democracy returned in 1999.”
The West's opposition to the suspension of Justice Onnoghen had also caused a disquiet among the supporters of President Buhari who saw the position as meddlesomeness and an affront to the war against corruption.
Governor Nasir El-Rufai of Kaduna in the north threatened that any external actor who tried to interfere in the election and in the internal affairs of Nigeria would return home in a body bag.
EU promptly reacted to the threat. The EU Observer Mission Press Secretary, Ms Sarah Fradgley, explained that the union did not wish to interfere in elections, but rather analyses and makes suggestions.
“The EU election observation missions give commentary and analysis and make recommendations about the electoral process.
“EU election observation missions are impartial, do not interfere in the electoral process, and operate according to a strict code of conduct,” she said.
Mr El-Rufai had issued the body bags threat in an interview on the national television NTA’s Tuesday Live programme.
The EU explained that it had been invited to observe all the elections in Nigeria since 1999. Thus, the next one would be the sixth time the EU was observing elections in the West African state.
The Independent National Electoral Commission invited the EU to deploy an observation mission for the 2019 General Election.
Mr El-Rufai, an ally of President Buhari, has denied calling for violence in his comments about foreign interference.
The Senior Special Assistant to the Governor on Media and Publicity, Mr Samuel Aruwan, said that the comment was not a call to violence, but rather a powerful defence of sovereignty.
He further explained that he was standing firmly against those trying to divide Nigerians along ethnic and religious lines, and was opposed to violence, but firmly committed to peace and harmony.
“He stood up for Nigeria’s dignity in the wake of those who would attempt to reduce it to the status of a colony in their vain quest for power," Mr Aruwan said.
“The video of his comments is in circulation. Any fair-minded person with modest familiarity with the English language and unimpaired comprehension can understand it. It does not contain any call for violence.
“It is a powerful defence of sovereignty. Are some sections of our political class implying that they will acquiesce in or collaborate with foreign intervention in our country?"
The Nigerian election is ranked among the most consequential in Africa's over a dozen polls in 2019.
Unlike in 2015, the two leading contenders, President Buhari and Mr Abubakar, are Hausa/ Fulani Muslims from northern Nigeria.
In 2015, religion and region played major roles in determining the outcome of the election because Buhari was pitted against Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian from the minority Ijaw ethnic group in the south.
Religion and region are thus expected to play an insignificant role in determining the next president of Africa's most populous state.