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Trip to Mexico and Nigeria

By Jimmy Carter

Rosalynn and I flew to Mexico City to observe the election, the first time government officials have invited me personally. The Carter Center has sent observers for the past 14 years and has helped with election reforms, but my high profile has made them uncomfortable, given their sensitivity toward the U.S. This time, the PRI apparently felt that reforms were adequate for closer assessment. But it was obvious that the ruling party was still using undue influence on voters, with some threats of losing popular services if the PRI lost. Bolivian president Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada was the co-chairman of the delegation.

The Carter Center's general goals were:
a) to be close observers by gaining maximum access with our small group to the Instituto Federal Electoral (IFE) and to the headquarters of the three major parties (PRI, PAN, and PRD);

b) to induce all candidates to accept the election day results without regard to abuses that had occurred during the campaign;

c) to urge Mexican voters to participate without regard to promises or intimidation by reminding them that their votes were free and secret; and

d) to express through the news media our confidence in the reformed election procedure and the intense interest of the international community.

Our first stop was IFE, obviously a competent and independent body, trusted by all parties. They have a huge budget and adequate authority for the conduct of the election, but that authority is limited to voting, tabulation, and detection of fraudulent practices just for that day. There is a separate election court system for dealing with "denuncias," or official complaints.

We then met with PEMEX executive Ramiro Berron and his wife Angelica, a geologist, who have blown the whistle on pressure applied to PEMEX employees to vote for Labastida and other PRI candidates. This couple was severely harassed until The New York Times ran an article about their case, and since then have been left alone but are still fearful.

We then visited President Zedillo, who was courteous but highly critical of the preliminary report issued by a Carter Center team that came down as pre-election observers. He has been responsible for notable election reforms, but denied any use of PRI's influence on voters, although there were credible reports to the contrary.

We then met with Vicente Fox, PAN candidate for president, who agreed to accept the results of the election without regard to pre-election problems. This would be with the caveat, of course, that the voting and tabulation were deemed to be fair. Earlier, he had said that pre-election abuses had been so extensive that a 10% margin of victory would be necessary to prevent his party taking to the streets, but Fox did not pursue this position with us.

On Saturday morning we met with PRD candidate Cuauhtemoc Cárdenas, who also had many allegations of election abuse but finally made the same commitment to honor results of the election itself.

Our next appointment was with Francisco Labastida, the PRI candidate, who expressed confidence in victory and assured us that he would wait for and abide by IFE's declaration of the results.

During the afternoon we held a press conference, gave our honest assessment of the situation, and answered many questions.

July 2
On election day we visited a few polling sites but concentrated on maintaining a presence at IFE and the national headquarters of the three major parties, all of which were completely accessible to our observers, a level of access we negotiated in June and which set our delegation apart from other observers. There was an elaborate system of observers throughout the country, with reporting from the field, exit polls, and about a dozen quick counts by IFE and others. Election returns were to be posted on the Internet as they were received at IFE. Election day went well, with about 64% turnout, relatively peaceful, only a dozen or so disqualified "casillas" out of 113,000, and a barrage of exit polls and quick counts.

About 4 p.m. we stopped by PAN headquarters, and Vicente Fox showed us the results of 10 exit polls, all except PRI's showing Fox ahead. Ultimately, this proved to be the case, with a surprising PAN margin of victory of about 6% for president. PAN also won both contested governorships, a plurality in both houses of congress, and came close to winning the mayorship of Mexico City. Everyone accepted these early returns, and there were gracious concession speeches before midnight.

We concluded our visit the next morning with CNN interviews and a press conference. These elections were a tremendous turning point for Mexico and a great example for the rest of the hemisphere. The entire election process was exemplary, except that "casillas especiales" were surprisingly overrun with transient voters, either crossing the border into Mexico or voting outside their home area.

We then took off on a 27-hour journey through Atlanta, GA, London,and Lagos, Nigeria, to Abuja. Our purposes in Nigeria were: a) to address some of the challenges to sustained civilian rule in the country, which has had military rule for 30 of its 40 years since independence; b) to promote our Global 2000 health and agriculture programs, and c) to strengthen our ties with President Obasanjo and other top government officials. On the flight from London to Lagos, I talked to a group of about 30 Nigerian senators and congress members returning from a familiarization trip, who complained that President Obasanjo almost completely ignores even their top leaders. The chairman of the Ways and Means committee said that he had seen the president only once during the past 14 months.

July 5
We had breakfast with the president and some of his cabinet members and found him to be friendly, but unwilling to admit that there were any serious problems in Nigeria he was not adequately addressing, with the possible exception of Kaduna State. He obviously lacks respect for the newly constituted congress, perhaps with some justification. Despite continuing violence in the Niger Delta area (over allocation of oil revenues) and in some northern states that have decided to impose Sharia law, he maintained that everything was under control. Also, he has not acknowledged that extensive reforms and multi-party consultations are needed to prevent a repetition of fraudulent election practices such as those we witnessed in February 1999.

I consider Olusegun Obasanjo to be an honest and competent leader, but decided to express myself frankly, in his presence, in my keynote speech at a conference sponsored by former president Yakubu Gowon's center on the theme, "Consolidating Democracy in Nigeria: Promoting Stable Civil-Military Relations." After outlining some comparisons between the U.S. and Nigeria in dealing with military leaders and giving my family's experience in past wars, I stated "Military rule could return to Nigeria." Some potential needs, if a coup is to be avoided are:

a) to root out corruption (some anti-corruption legislation has been passed);

b) to strengthen the system of federalism (states are acting independently to adopt Sharia law)

c) to resolve ethnic and religious disputes peacefully (1,500 people have died in Kaduna state alone);

d) to generate mutual respect between the executive and legislative branches of government (I advocated regular meetings with the leadership);

e) to involve all major parties in reforming the electoral system;

f) to treat deprived citizens fairly (as in the Niger Delta region); and

g) to revise the constitution developed under Sani Abacha, perhaps with a national conference. I also mentioned Carter Center projects in Nigeria and called for international debt relief. President Obasanjo's response was friendly and non-critical.

Rosalynn met with Mrs. Obasanjo and a large number of cabinet wives to discuss The Carter Center's programs, especially mental health, and the role of women in government.

July 6
We visited Kaduna and Niger states to observe progress on agriculture and Guinea worm eradication projects. After five years of dormancy under Abacha, we are now making good progress on Guinea worm, with a 35% reduction in the first six months of this year.

That evening, after driving 350 miles to Carter Center project sites, we had an enjoyable visit with Vice-President Atiku Abubakar, who is said to have increasing influence. He thanked us for having helped "resolve the crisis in Nigeria" and wants to continue collaboration with The Carter Center. He expressed a willingness to purchase Quality Protein Maize seed from Ghana for planting in Nigeria and said he would strongly support the use of Nigerian troops in peace-keeping efforts in West Africa, provided international funds are available. He's very interested in river blindness, stating that most adults are blind in villages in his home district. He was traveling to the North the next day in an effort to defuse the Sharia issue, to which he believes there has been an overreaction. He attributes the Obasanjo-legislative standoff to lack of experience and training.

July 7
(My and Rosalynn's 54th wedding anniversary!) We attended a large public ceremony with General Gowon and the Minister of Health to assess the status of our assistance to programs on Guinea worm, river blindness, lymphatic filariasis, and schistosomiasis, and to plan for initiating a trachoma control project later this year. We are behind schedule on river blindness treatments, having been required by the African Program for Onchocerciasis Control to do a census and conduct district training. We treated about 350,000 people in May and should remain on schedule in the future.

The combined use of Mectizan and albendazole for lymphatic filariasis was just approved, and our first doses were administrated on July 4. Our first assessments showed 24% of the people with this disease (commonly called elephantiasis), while WHO considers a 1% rate to be high. For schistosomiasis, we have treated about 45,000 people with praziquantel during the past seven months and have 340,000 tablets on hand. By the end of our visit, I felt the Minister of Health was fully committed to these programs.

We then left for home, with one refueling stop at Cape Verde.

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