The Independent National Electoral Commission in Nigeria has pushed back the country’s elections by six weeks, citing security concerns.
In the first week of February, Musa Garba, a trader based in Lagos, travelled to Kano in northern Nigeria to fulfil his civic duty and register to vote. The 12-hour journey cost him about N7,000 ($34), but for Garba, the sacrifice seemed worth it to participate in the 14th February poll.
“We need change in this country and I am voting for the man who will bring about change,” he says.
Garba will have to wait. On 8th February, Prof Attahiru Jega, the chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), the body in charge of conducting elections in Nigeria, announced that the poll would be delayed by six weeks.
There had been indications in the run-up to the announcement that the poll might be held up, but the change has disappointed ordinary Nigerians, like Garba, and undermined investors’
confidence in the country’s capital markets.
Jega attributed the postponement to the insecurity in the north eastern parts of the country, and the inability of millions of registered voters to collect their permanent voters’ cards (PVCs).
The Islamist insurgent group Boko Haram has stepped up attacks on civilians in the past year, although a multinational force from Chad, Niger and Nigeria has had some successes in the field over the past few weeks.
Presidential elections will now be held on 28th March, while governorship elections, originally slated for 28th February, will now take place on 11th April.
He also announced an extension in the collection of PVCs by one month – from 8th February to 9th March – to enable Nigerians that would have been disenfranchised had the elections taken place as originally planned, to exercise their rights. By early February, only 45m out of 69m eligible voters had collected their PVCs.
INEC’s chairman had insisted that the commission was ready for the elections before it eventually adjusted the timetable.
However, he has since argued that few election management bodies around the world would contemplate conducting elections under the current circumstances.
“In the conduct of elections in a country like Nigeria, it is a collective venture that involves not just election management body, but also a diverse range of stakeholders, notably political parties, their candidates, voters, security agencies and civil society organisations,” he said.
The incumbent, Goodluck Jonathan, is facing off against the former military head of state, General Muhammadu Buhari, who is running for the fourth time.
Buhari heads a coalition of four major parties, the All Progressives Congress (APC), which was formed in 2013 to unseat the Peoples Democratic Party, which has held power in Nigeria since the return to civilian rule in 1999. Analysts say that the APC’s growing popularity has taken the PDP by surprise.
The APC has reacted strongly to the delay, saying that it is a ploy contrived by the Jonathan administration to buy more time.
Bola Tinubu, the former governor of Lagos State and a senior figure in the APC, described the postponement as a ‘smokescreen’ that would give the PDP more time to fine-tune its strategies.
“This postponement has deeply wounded Nigerian democracy,” he said in a statement.
Jonathan has moved to reassure Nigerians and the international community that he will still abide by the original handover date of 29th May. In a statement, delivered through his spokesman Reuben Abati, he said: “This is not a time to trade blame or make statements that may overheat the polity, but a time to show understanding and support the electoral commission to conduct the elections successfully.”
Tensions ahead of the poll have been high. Northern politicians have been agitating for power to shift away from the wealthier south of the country, while former militants from the south have warned that a change in the balance of power would lead to anarchy.
Emeka Anyaoku and Kofi Annan, the former secretary-generals of the Commonwealth and the United Nations, respectively, brokered a meeting between Jonathan and Buhari in Abuja in January. Both parties signed a peace deal to forestall a repeat of the post-election violence of 2011, in which around 800 people died.
Ban Ki-moon, the current UN secretary-general, encouraged both parties to respect the accord, and asked INEC to ensure that the remaining PVCs are distributed to all eligible citizens, including those displaced by the fighting.
This was echoed by John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, who held a peace meeting with both candidates during a visit to Nigeria on 25th January. In a statement, Kerry expressed disappointment over the delay to the elections, saying: “Political interference with the Independent National Electoral Commission is unacceptable, and it is critical that the government not use security concerns as a pretext for impeding the democratic process.”
The Jonathan government is now under pressure to stick to its revised timetable for the elections, and to avoid overtly intervening in the process any further, but the damage –
domestically and internationally – of the delay could be acute.
Bode Fashanu, a political analyst, believes the development might affect the chances of the ruling party at the polls.
“The postponement could impact negatively on the PDP, as it is widely perceived to have mounted intense pressure INEC to shift the elections,” Fashanu says. “The opposition could get sympathy votes.”