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Local and international condemnation as Nigeria postpones elections

Nigeria’s election dates have been postponed by six weeks. The presidential and Federal National Assembly elections, which had been scheduled for Saturday, February 14, will now take place on March 28, and the elections for state governors and state assemblies, originally set for February 28, will now happen on April 11. Attahiru Jega, chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), made the announcement on Saturday, February 7, at a press conference in Abuja.

Mr Jega, who had testified on Thursday, February 5 before the Council of State that INEC was in a position to successfully run the elections on time, said that INEC had taken the decision to postpone in response to a formal request from Sambo Dasuki, National Security Adviser to President Goodluck Jonathan. Mr Dasuki explained that the security services were unable to ensure the security of the election because of the number of troops tied up in a counter-insurgency offensive against Boko Haram in the north of the country.

Most reactions to the news have been condemnation. The opposition All Progressives Congress (APC), whose presidential candidate Muhammadu Buhari is the only real challenger to Mr Jonathan, called the move a “major setback for Nigerian democracy” and “highly provocative.” Mr Buhari himself, who was still looking forward to a “crushing victory” ahead of the announcement, called for calm and rightly pointed out that “any act of violence can only complicate the security challenges and provide further justification to those who would want to exploit every situation to frustrate the democratic process.”

Britain’s Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said “the security situation should not be used as a reason to deny the Nigerian people from exercising their democratic rights” and also called for calm. US Secretary of State John Kerry said Washington was “deeply disappointed” and criticised “political interference” by the PDP; on the day before Mr Jega announced the postponement, The US State Department issued a statement in which it said it “look[ed] to Nigeria to hold these elections on time.”

The shift in election dates may not affect the date of the end of current President Goodluck Jonathan’s term: he said on Sunday, February 8, that he was committed to maintaining May 29 as the final day of his current term in office. Apart from that, however, the ruling party has had little to say: Reuben Abati, a spokesman for Mr Jonathan, said that the president “believes that this is not a time to trade blames or make statements that may overheat the polity.”

The decision to postpone the elections is clearly political. Mr Dasuki, the national security adviser who pushed Mr Jega to announce the postponement, had already called for a postponement in late January. The pretext of security had already been aired at last week’s Council of State meeting and rejected. Besides, the army is not legally in charge of security during elections – that is the job of the police. We think the PDP pressed Mr Jega to make his announcement for tactical reasons. The APC, believing there was only a week left to the elections, has probably exhausted its financial resources, while Mr Jonathan’s campaign has substantial gunpowder left.

Analysts expect to see massive mobilisation by the PDP over the next six weeks, in terms of advertising and what Nigerians call “stomach infrastructure”: the handing out of branded bags of rice. Behind the scenes we think Mr Jonathan’s campaign will be in touch with less savoury political operatives who can deliver votes in thousands at a time. The ruling party is also probably expecting that the coming successes against Boko Haram thanks to the multilateral force will be a potent electoral argument for the president’s re-election.

Political risk is to be considered higher, and it is a bit surprising that there has not already been trouble over the announcement. We hear that the PDP wants to oust Mr Jega as head of INEC; that development could be a flashpoint for trouble, too. It is too soon to say how the announcement affects the calculus for the presidential election itself. In recent weeks Mr Buhari has been looking strong, and if the election had been held on time we would not have been surprised to see him win. The resources the PDP has at its disposal are still substantial and will make a difference, but the incumbent remains highly unpopular.

A large part of Nigerian elites back the challenger, and may become more determined in reaction to the PDP’s postponement move. The next weeks will give greater clarity on which way the wind is blowing: key to watch will be high-level defections from one party to the other. Key to watch will be high-level defections from one party to the other, and ex-president Olusegun Obasanjo’s endorsement of Mr Buhari is a notable development in this sense. 

Francois Conradie (Political Analyst)

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