On the night of February 15-16, in other words the eve of Nigeria’s scheduled presidential and legislative elections, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) announced a one-week postponement to February 23. The postponement also affects the gubernatorial and state assembly elections, initially previewed for March 2 but now slated for March 9.
From the INEC website, here is an excerpt from Chairman (Prof.) Mahmood Yakubu’s remarks on February 16. I will quote at length, because I find some of this remarkable:
It is therefore not unexpected that such a tremendous national mobilization of men and materials will encounter operational challenges and we have had our own fair share of such challenges. There has been delays in delivering ballot papers and result sheets for the elections which is not unusual. However, I must emphasize that all the ballot papers and result sheets were ready before the elections despite the very tight legal timeframe for finalizing nomination of candidates and dealing with the spate of legal challenges that accompany it. In this regard, the Commission has been sued or joined in over 640 court cases arising from the nomination of candidates. As at today, there are 40 different court orders against the Commission on whether to add or drop candidates. The net effect of these is that there is usually roughly a one-month window for the Commission to print ballot papers and result sheets and either fly or transport them to several destinations until they finally get to each polling unit. Unfortunately, in the last one week, flights within the country have been adversely affected by bad weather. For instance, three days ago, we were unable to deliver materials to some locations due to bad weather. We therefore had to rely on slow-moving long haulage vehicles to locations that can be serviced by air in spite of the fact that we created five zonal airport hubs – Abuja (North Central), Port Harcourt (South South and South East), Kano (North West), Maiduguri and Yola (North East) and Lagos (South West) to facilitate the delivery of electoral logistics.
Apart from these logistical challenges, we also faced what may well be attempts to sabotage our preparations. In a space of two weeks, we had to deal with serious fire incidents in three of our offices in Isiala Ngwa South Local Government Area of Abia State, Qu’an Pan Local Government Area of Plateau State and our Anambra State Office at Awka. In all three cases, serious disruptions were occasioned by the fire, further diverting our attention from regular preparations to recovery from the impact of the incidents. In Isiala Ngwa South, hundreds of PVCs were burnt, necessitating the re-compiling of the affected cards and reprinting in time to ensure that the affected voters are not disenfranchised. I am glad that all the cards were quickly reprinted and made available for collection by their owners.
What stood out to me were the defensive tone and the reference to sabotage. The postponement has obviously occasioned concerns (including from me!) that this a maneuver designed to favor the incumbent and reduce turnout, but here we see Yakubu portraying INEC as the target rather than the author of efforts at tampering.
Of course, past postponements have not necessarily favored the incumbent. In 2015, the administration of President Goodluck Jonathan ordered a six-week delay amid the military campaign against Boko Haram. Jonathan then lost to Muhammadu Buhari.
That does not mean, however, that there is no cause for concern here. Jonathan’s administration deserves substantial criticism, but through 2018 and 2019 Buhari’s administration and the current iteration of INEC have made several problematic moves. This postponement follows two other incidents that troubled me: the highly contentious partial re-run of the gubernatorial election in Osun in September, and the presidency’s suspension of Supreme Court Chief Justice Walter Onnoghen in January.
Overall, I have long expected Buhari to win (partly, I admit, because of a status quo bias on my part – other analysts, most prominently the Economist Intelligence Unit, predict a win by Buhari’s chief rival, former Vice President Atiku Abubakar). Buhari’s central political alliance, with former Lagos Governor Bola Tinubu, remains intact and seems likely to help Buhari reconstruct most of the map he won in 2015 – the north plus the southwest plus part of the Middle Belt.
But the map could shrink. There are internal, state-level conflicts within Buhari’s All Progressives Congress (APC) that could affect Buhari’s prospects in northern states such as Kano. Meanwhile, Atiku and his allies have pull in states such as Adamawa and Kwara. I don’t expect all of these states to shift to Atiku’s column, but the “solid north” may be more competitive for Buhari than in 2011 and 2015. These dynamics give the president’s team an incentive to tamper – whether they have that intention is another question. But the postponement looks bad, not just in terms of INEC’s professionalism but also in terms of tampering.
My final thought is that I think another postponement is possible, although I would put the chances well under 50%. But if the logistical challenges were serious enough to warrant a one-week postponement, and if there are ongoing efforts at sabotage, then one week may prove insufficient.
For more, I recommend reading Fola Adeleke‘s piece at The Conversation.