In an extraordinary warning at a crucial moment in Nigeria's election, the United States and Britain have alleged that Nigerian politicians may be deliberately interfering in the vote-counting process in an attempt to rig the election.
The warning came in the final hours before the official election result is scheduled to be announced. Partial results suggest a tight race between President Goodluck Jonathan and his main opponent, retired general Muhammadu Buhari. It is believed to be the closest election contest in Nigeria's recent history, triggering tensions across the country.
With votes counted from 18 of Nigeria's 36 states, plus the capital Abuja, Mr. Buhari had won about 8.5 million votes, while Mr. Jonathan had about 6.5 million votes. But votes from most of Mr. Jonathan's southern strongholds have yet to be announced, potentially making the results much closer.
The results were announced by election officials throughout the afternoon and evening on Monday, broadcast live by Nigeria's TV channels, but only half of the 36 states were ready to release results. The rest were expected to be announced on Tuesday, revealing the winner.
In an unusual joint statement, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond warned on Monday that there are "disturbing indications" of attempted vote-rigging in the "collation" process, the final stage in vote-counting.
Mr. Kerry and Mr. Hammond said there is no evidence of "systemic manipulation" of the process "so far," but there are indications that the collating of votes "may be subject to deliberate political interference."
This would contravene the promises that the main candidates made before the election, they 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 or its chairman, Professor Attahiru Jega, or in any way distort the expressed will of the Nigerian people," the statement said.
Femi Fani-Kayode, a spokesman for Mr. Jonathan's campaign, said he was "irritated" by the criticism from "thousands of miles away." In an interview on Monday, he denied that the ruling party was guilty of any vote-rigging. "Provide the evidence," he said.
Mr. Fani-Kayode warned that Nigeria will face a "catastrophe" if the opposition refuses to accept the election results, but he also refused to say whether the ruling People's Democratic Party will accept the results. If Mr. Buhari is unfairly declared the winner, the PDP will resist it "in every way known to man," he said.
A long list of election-observer missions, both domestic and international, have praised Nigerians for voting patiently and peacefully in Saturday's election – the biggest in African history. But the problems are arising in the vote-counting stage, with some politicians apparently unwilling to accept defeat.
One leading coalition of Nigerian civil society groups, Situation Room, issued a similar warning on Monday, saying that it was receiving reports of "electoral fraud" being committed as the voting results were being collated.
"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," the group said.
It said it was "deeply concerned by reports of attempts across several states of the country to undermine the integrity of the collation of votes and the outcome."
The group called on Nigerians "to be vigilant at this critical time of our national history and defend the course of democracy."
Election groups from Europe, the United States and the Commonwealth agreed that Nigerian voters were remarkably committed to democracy on voting day, enduring long delays in hot sun and rain. New electronic card readers, while sometimes malfunctioning, had helped to reduce electoral fraud, they said.
But the observers identified a series of flaws and dangers in the election. Johnnie Carson, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state, said the current "multi-stage" vote-collating process is a problem. He said the voting results should be "directly transmitted" from the voting stations to the national election commission, to reduce rumours and to cut the risk of "malfeasance" as the results are passed indirectly from local and regional levels to the national level.
Observers from the European Union said it was "implausible" for 11 states to have reported that 92 per cent of voters had collected their voting cards, since the voter registration list had included anyone who had died in the past five years.
The EU observers also criticized Mr. Jonathan's wife, Patience, for using "inflammatory language" against the opposition. She had told a crowd that anyone who supports "change" – the opposition slogan – should be "stoned." The leadership of Mr. Jonathan's ruling party was "negligent" in failing to react to this inflammatory speech, the EU said.
A team from the Commonwealth Observer Group said some Nigerian politicians and activists had used "highly emotive rhetoric" which could be seen as "incitement to violence."
It also noted that the nightly newscasts on Nigeria's main state-controlled television channel had been "completely dominated" by reports of the ruling party's campaign rallies.
Nigerian newspapers, meanwhile, had routinely published lucrative election advertisements that masqueraded as news. Many advertisements were potentially defamatory or inflammatory, it said.