Late on Saturday, February 7, Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) Chairman Attahiru Jega announced the postponement of the country’s national and state elections. Originally scheduled for February 14 (national) and 28 (state), the dates will now be, respectively, March 28 and April 11. The Constitution sets May 29 as inauguration day, which many Nigerians view as “sacrosanct” – so further delays could be even more contentious.
The administration of incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan began to press for a delay on January 22. National Security Advisor Sambo Dasuki recommended a delay on two grounds: the incomplete distribution of Permanent Voters’ Cards and the security situation in northeast Nigeria, where the Boko Haram sect is based. These two issues are not entirely linked: card distribution has lagged in Lagos, which is about as far from the northeast as one can get and still be in Nigeria. As late as February 5, Jega asserted INEC’s readiness to proceed with the vote as scheduled.
The postponement has occasioned outcry within Nigeria and abroad. Rumors are swirling that the administration may move to force Jega out. The international media generally feels that the delay benefits Jonathan by giving him more time to make a tangible improvement in the security situation as well as to strengthen his re-election prospects (through various means). The administration, however, has denied pressuring Jega to delay.
I’ve rounded up a few key statements with excerpts and commentary:
- Jega: “Our level of preparedness, despite a few challenges, is sufficient to conduct free, fair and credible elections as scheduled on February 14th and February 28th…But as I mentioned earlier, there are some other variables equally crucial for successful conduct of the 2015 general elections that are outside the control of INEC. One important variable is security for the elections…Where the security services strongly advise otherwise, it would be unconscionable of the Commission to deploy personnel and call voters out in such a situation.” (For me, the takeaway here is that Jega is placing responsibility for the call onto the security chiefs.)
- Jonathan campaign/People’s Democratic Party (PDP): “With this decision, INEC has allayed the fears of many of our citizens that they may not have had the opportunity to vote for the candidates and parties of their choice on Election Day…We are constrained to take this opportunity to wholeheartedly condemn the opposition APC [the All Progressives Congress, the major opposition coalition) for its paranoid delusions and its far-fetched and childish conspiracy theories when it comes to the issue of poll shift. By insisting that the elections should be conducted on February 14th the opposition was not only dangerously flirting with chaos but was also putting our country firmly on the path of confrontation, division, injustice, disaster and destruction.” (This gives a sense of how sharp the rhetoric is, and how the postponement has become a partisan issue.)
- Gen. Muhammadu Buhari (APC candidate and Jonathan’s main challenger): “As a Nigerian and a presidential candidate in the elections, I share in the disappointment and frustration of this decision. This postponement coming a week to the first election has raised so many questions, many of which shall be asked in the days ahead. However, we must not allow ourselves to be tempted into taking actions that could further endanger the democratic process. Our country is going through a difficult time in the hands of terrorists. Any act of violence can only complicate the security challenges in the country and provide further justification to those who would want to exploit every situation to frustrate the democratic process in the face of certain defeat at the polls. If anything, this postponement should strengthen our resolve and commitment to rescue our country from the current economic and social collapse from this desperate band. Our desire for change must surpass their desperation to hold on to power at all cost.” (For me, the takeaway here is the effort that Buhari is making to project calm leadership. Buhari has sometimes been portrayed in the international and Nigerian media as a strongman former military ruler and a pro-Northern Islamist, and here as elsewhere he is trying to undo that image.)
- U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry: “The United States is deeply disappointed by the decision to postpone Nigeria’s presidential election, which had been scheduled for February 14. 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 international community will be watching closely as the Nigerian government prepares for elections on the newly scheduled dates. The United States underscores the importance of ensuring that there are no further delays.” (The U.S. is being clear that it sees the postponement as a political, rather than a logistically necessary, move. The UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office statement is similar, though a notch softer in tone.)
- The BBC has some “man on the street” reactions and some coverage of anti-postponement protests by the APC.
Finally, Karen Attiah of the Washington Post has a good piece laying out why this delay is problematic: it is unlikely to bring a rapid improvement in the security situation, which is a long-term challenge; and it undermines the credibility and independence of INEC, which could exacerbate already strong mistrust of the process among many Nigerian voters.