Shock and anxiety rippled through Nigeria’s political class last week when the United States government announced that it was imposing visa sanctions on some Nigerians who undermined democracy during the last general and presidential elections. State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said in a statement on Tuesday that “These individuals have operated with impunity at the expense of the Nigerian people and undermined democratic principles and human rights.” She added, “This decision reflects the Department of State’s commitment to working with the Nigerian government to realize its expressed commitment to end corruption and strengthen democracy, accountability, and respect for human rights.”
US Embassy and Consulate in Nigeria later clarified that the restrictions were not placed on the generality of Nigerians but on those who tried to undermine the country’s democracy during February’s general elections. A statement on the embassy’s website, signed by Morgan Ortagus said “the actions announced today are specific to certain individuals and not directed at the Nigerian people or the newly elected government.” It added, “We condemn those whose acts of violence, intimidation or corruption harmed Nigerians or undermined the democratic process.”
It would be recalled that back in January, as this country prepared to go for the elections, the US and UK governments said they were considering imposing sanctions on those found to be inciting violence on social media and in the polls. They said such persons might be prosecuted and that their family members may also be affected by the travel restrictions. Tuesday’s statement however left open a wide gap because it did not name those affected by the visa restriction, or exactly what it entails, or even for how long the restriction would last.
A former US diplomat was quoted in the news media as saying that the State Department is prevented by privacy laws from revealing those who are affected by the measures. This tallies with the refusal of US authorities earlier this year to clarify the visa status of then PDP presidential candidate Atiku Abubakar. Still, refusal to mention the individuals involved created room for media speculators to bandy about lists of allegedly affected persons, especially in the social media. While some of them were accused of making intemperate statements in the run up to the polls, others were accused by their opponents and the media of instigating violence in some localities, using thugs to intimidate opponents or outrightly rigging the elections in some areas.
Nor is it surprising that the US measures took the political scene by storm because top Nigerian public officers and businessmen value the US visa. This was why APC campaigners made a lot of political capital out of the allegation that Atiku Abubakar could not visit the US. When he eventually did, the PDP candidate also made a big splash out of it. Matters could get worse for the persons concerned because the UK government is likely to impose similar measures, having earlier promised to do so.
The European Union [EU], whose election observers also uttered some harsh words in their report, could easily follow suit. These would make it difficult for the Nigerian VIPs concerned to visit those countries on business and holiday, or to send their kids to school there, or even for their wives to go on shopping sprees.
Our own domestic laws and regulations have failed to halt impunity and electoral malpractice in its tracks. We therefore hope that the American measures, hopefully soon to be followed by similar European measures, would at least make the message sink into the heads of election riggers that impunity no longer goes unpunished.