Nigeria's bitterly contested presidential election went down to the wire Monday as the national election commission began announcing results. With almost a quarter of the ballots counted, the election was on a knife edge, with about 2.3 million votes apiece for President Goodluck Jonathan and his rival, former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari.
In the final hours of the count, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond took the unusual step of warning of "disturbing indications" of possible rigging of the results.
Voting in Nigeria's election saw delays and glitches with new electronic technology, although no one was prevented from voting. There also were scattered incidents of violence, ballot-box theft and intimidation across the country.
But the real fears were always for the post-election period, after past elections in which disputed results led to deadly rioting by the unhappy supporters of losing candidates.
The warning of possible electoral fraud by Kerry and Hammond echoes accusations of rigging by local politicians from both parties, and underscores the risk of a likely disputed result, potentially triggering violence.
"So far, we have seen no evidence of systemic manipulation of the process. But there are disturbing indications that the collation process -- where the votes are finally counted -- may be subject to deliberate political interference," a joint statement said.
"The governments of the United States and the United Kingdom would be very concerned by any attempts to undermine the independence of the Electoral Commission (INEC), or its chairman, Professor [Attahiru] Jega, or in any way distort the expressed will of the Nigerian people," the statement warned.
In January, Kerry met Jonathan and Buhari and issued a tough warning that any Nigerian leader who promoted violence during the election would be denied a U.S. visa in the future.
Before the vote, Jonathan and Buhari signed the so-called Abuja accord, an agreement to refrain from any comments before, during or after the election that could incite violence. However, they signed a similar deal before the 2011 election and it did not prevent violence in the north after Buhari rejected the election results. Hundreds of his supporters rioted, and in some areas mobs dragged people from their homes and killed them. At least 800 people died, despite the fact that international observers saw the vote as one of the country's fairest.
Jega, the Independent Electoral Commission chairman, began announcing the results from the nation's 36 states in the early afternoon.
With eight states and the capital territory, Abuja, counted, the vote was finely balanced, with a mere 20,000 votes separating the two candidates. The result indicated a swing away from Jonathan, compared with his comfortable 2011 win, but didn't include his strongholds in the south and southeast.
International observers praised Nigerians for their patience in waiting out the long delays in voting, which were blamed on glitches in biometric technology that identified voters by their thumbprints. The International Republican Institute and National Democratic Institute sent observer missions, both funded by the State Department.
"While IRI's delegation witnessed some shortcomings in the procedures, such as hours-long delays, overall delegates praised the determination of Nigerian voters to see the process through to the end, even if it meant returning to their polling units the next day to complete the voting process," said Constance Newman, the leader of the IRI delegation. It was critical of the very late arrival of sensitive voting materials to some polling stations, which added to the delays.
An NDI statement Monday said the biometric equipment designed to reduce election fraud didn't always work but that voters were still able to cast their ballots after long delays.
"While these innovations were effective in many of the polling stations observed by NDI, in other places equipment malfunctioned and led to significant delays," the statement said. "The Institute called on political parties and candidates to accept the election results and use the courts to settle election-related disputes, should they arise."
As tension rose Sunday, both political parties accused one another of releasing false election results and planning to stir chaos and anarchy.
The Situation Room, a Nigerian pro-democracy civil society group that has been monitoring the elections, warned Monday about the potential for fraud in the counting process.
"The Situation Room received disturbing reports that politicians are attempting to use national security apparatuses to fiddle with the election collation process and pass off results that undermine the credibility of the elections and the sacrifice of millions of Nigerians," the group said.