Our nation's top diplomat needs to learn that her job is to enhance the U.S. image abroad -- not muddy up America's reputation.
Last week, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton resurrected the 2000 presidential election controversy. On Wednesday, during an official visit, she mentioned the race in the context of Nigeria's turbulent electoral history. "You know, we had some problems in some of our presidential elections," she said. "As you may remember, in 2000, our presidential election came down to one state where the brother of one of the men running for president was governor of the state. So we have our problems too."
Nigerian politicians must have been stunned and delighted when Mrs. Clinton granted moral equivalence between their corrupt political system and American democracy. The 2000 vote in the United States was like a model from a civics textbook compared to Nigeria's last election.
The April 2007 Nigerian state and national elections were marked by widespread and systematic fraud. The European Union's Election Observation Mission to Nigeria concluded that the poll "fell far short of basic international and regional standards for democratic elections." Problems with the balloting included "very poor organization, lack of essential transparency, widespread procedural irregularities, substantial evidence of fraud, widespread voter disenfranchisement at different stages of the process, lack of equal conditions for political parties and candidates and numerous incidents of violence."
Polls opened late. Ballots were printed at the last minute and in some cases did not arrive at all. Observers witnessed outright vote buying and ballot-box theft. The mission report noted that "continuing and widespread use of thugs by a number of political parties created a significant degree of fear and intimidation." In one case, a local opposition candidate was beaten by soldiers on election day. Nationwide, at least 200 people were killed in election-related violence.
Nigeria's 2007 elections were universally denounced. Chief EU observer Max van den Berg said, "These elections have not lived up to the hopes and expectations of the Nigerian people, and the process cannot be considered to have been credible." Bill Clinton's former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said the election "represents a step backward in the conduct of elections in Nigeria." Nigeria's largest election-monitoring group slammed it as a "charade." The opposition candidate, Vice President Atiku Abubakar, called it "the worst election ever seen."
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley later explained that Mrs. Clinton was trying to make a point about "the willingness of the candidates to accept a flawed result rather than, say, resort to violence" in a disputed election. But that is not what she said and surely not what her audience heard. Nascent democracies in Africa are determined to escape the curse of strongman politics. Saying "the brother of one of the men running for president was governor of the state" will be understood by Nigerians to mean that some form of American tribalism or dynastic politics decided the race. Coming from a secretary of state, this comment was culturally illiterate at best and at worst implicated then-Gov. Jeb Bush in vote fraud.
Those who profit most from this ill-advised comment are the politicians responsible for Nigeria's scandalous election system. Rather than holding up the United States as a country to be emulated, Mrs. Clinton gave corrupt Nigerian politicians an easy out, an excuse to shrug off complaints and say, "The United States has its problems, too." This is generally the problem with the recent mania to apologize for, downgrade and otherwise officially humble the United States in international settings. It won't make anyone like us better; it simply will remove any basis for criticism of the human rights offenders.
Mrs. Clinton should keep matters in perspective. We may have some of our own electoral glitches, but compared to the Nigerian system, we have no problems at all. For oppressed foreigners aspiring to bring representative government to their lands, America is still the shining city on a hill.