WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Nigerian opposition candidate Muhammadu Buhari, who appears to have defeated President Goodluck Jonathan in Nigeria's weekend election, won a cautious endorsement from two U.S. officials on Tuesday.
Buhari's opposition All Progressives Congress (APC) claimed victory and said Jonathan had called Buhari to concede the presidency of Africa's most populous country and top oil producer. Reuters compiled a final tally of the results that showed Buhari with 15.4 million votes against 13.3 million for Jonathan.
A U.S. State Department official who asked not to be named said Washington was ready to work with whoever was democratically elected in Nigeria and offered a positive, though cautious, assessment of Buhari.
"Buhari has peacefully contested the last few presidential elections and accepted the results of those votes, even when he questioned the credibility of the process," the official said.
"His leadership of the opposition over these years has demonstrated a commitment to democracy that would seem to suggest he is participating in Nigeria’s new era that began in 1999," he said.
Jonathan's People's Democratic Party (PDP) has been in charge since the end of army rule in 1999, but he has been losing popularity due to a number of corruption scandals and the rise of the Boko Haram Islamist insurgency in the northeast.
U.S. government experts believe Buhari will be a more effective leader and one less prone to accusations of corruption than Jonathan, according to a second U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
This official said Buhari had a reputation for integrity and suggested that his background as a military commander might help him reform the Nigerian army and other security forces, making them more effective against Boko Haram militants.
"The General," as Buhari is known to supporters, kicked out an elected government in a 1983 coup d'etat and ushered in an era of military dictatorship in Africa's most populous nation that lasted 15 years.
During his 18 months of rule from 1983 to 1985, Buhari jailed journalists and opposition activists without trial, executed drug traffickers by firing squad and ordered soldiers to thrash those who failed to line up in an orderly fashion at bus stops.
U.S.-Nigerian ties have been strained in recent years by U.S. frustration at Jonathan's failure to move more aggressively against Boko Haram, which has killed thousands of people in its attempt to carve out an Islamic state.
Nigeria has accused the United States of failing to sell it arms it needs to fight Boko Haram and of not sharing enough intelligence. It has also rejected claims of human rights abuses that have limited some U.S. military assistance.
J. Peter Pham, director of the Atlantic Council think tank's Africa Center, suggested there was a desire on both sides for a new chapter in the relationship.
"There has been such frustration on the part of the administration and policymakers with the last few years of the Jonathan administration that ... a number of people (here) have taken the attitude that any change would be good," he said.
"Any opportunity for a 'reset' in the relationship, or at least to start afresh, I think will be welcomed by both sides."
(Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball and Lesley Wroughton in Washington and by Tim Cocks in Abuja; Editing by David Storey, Toni Reinhold)