The postponement of the Nigerian election threatens to fuel short-term unrest and undermine confidence in the country’s democratic credentials. Accusations of political motivations behind the postponement will elevate tensions between the opposition APC and the ruling PDP, and increase the likelihood of allegations of voting irregularities in the wake of the election. The six-week delay will not overcome the threat posed by Boko Haram nor guarantee security on election day, but could allow the INEC and the government to rectify the severe logistical failings ahead of the rescheduled national vote.
The presidential and National Assembly elections originally scheduled for 14 February will now take place on 28 March. Gubernatorial and state elections will also be postponed from 28 February until 11 April. In an announcement on 7 February, Attahiru Jega, the chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), stated the delay was necessary because of insufficient government security forces to guarantee the safety of the vote, with large deployments currently engaged in operations against the Islamist militant group Boko Haram in the north of the country.
The INEC has denied accusations that it was coerced by the Federal Government to delay the elections, but the announcement has sparked protests and condemnation from opposition groups and supporters. The All Progressive Congress (APC) has stated the delay, to which it has consistently voiced opposition, has damaged the integrity and independence of the INEC. Some government opponents have claimed that the delay is a tactic of the governing Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP) to boost its chances of electoral success, giving it more time to use its financial superiority over rivals to campaign. The Federal Government has also been accused of withholding funds to the INEC to mobilise for the election, helping to ensure the postponement of the election on logistical grounds. The logistical organisation of the election has been a failure, with up to a third of the population lacking the voter cards required to vote.
The postponement has already provoked protests and has been condemned by multiple political and civil society organisations in Nigeria. Protests have been held outside the INEC offices in central Abuja and will likely continue intermittently ahead of the rescheduled vote. APC presidential candidate Muhammadu Buhari has called for supporters to remain calm following the announcement, stating that unrest could be used as justification by the government for further delays, but rival political demonstrations remain likely. Furthermore, the six-week delay provides more time for violence between rival political groups to develop, which has already been seen in parts of Lagos in isolated clashes between gangs loyal to the PDP and APC.
Buhari has stated that the 28 March election date is now sacrosanct and cannot be compromised. The military has assured that the six-week provision will be sufficient to secure the elections and enable interim progress against Boko Haram in its strongholds of the northeast. However, it is not credible to assume that security will be restored to the worst-affected states of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa in that timeframe. Despite some recent military successes against the group, the military has proven incapable of countering Boko Haram for several years and previous intensified campaigns to weaken the group have failed. Although the governments of Niger, Cameroon, Benin and Chad announced a new force of more than 8,000 to tackle Boko Haram in support of Nigeria on 7 February, the operation is unlikely to succeed in such a short period of time.
The delay will likely allow for the wider distribution of voter cards and better logistical and security preparation for the vote. However, an election on 28 March will remain incredibly insecure in the worst-affected northern regions, where Boko Haram has proven capable of both holding territory and conducting multiple mass casualty bombings on public targets. Although some temporary progress against the group could be made in the next six weeks, it is hard to envisage how the vote will be secured in areas the government has persistently failed to secure previously.
The election delay marks a negative development for the reputation of Nigeria. Its inability to provide adequate security for the election and accusations of political interference in the INEC have undermined the country’s democratic credentials. Both the US and UK have issued statements warning of using security as a barrier to elections, and the UN has called for the rapid dissemination of voter cards to ensure the elections go ahead on the rescheduled date. The Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry (LCCI) also stated that the decision would undermine investor confidence at a time of existing difficulty for the Nigerian economy, amid the low oil price and declining value of the Naira. Investment decisions awaiting the outcome of the elections will also be further delayed.
Any additional postponement of the election would provoke much wider unrest and could fuel a boycott by the APC, severely undermining the credibility of the vote. Although not considered likely at this juncture, with President Jonathan having stated his commitment to his current presidential term in office, which ends in May, this scenario cannot be entirely discounted. Until recently both the INEC and government were adamant the 14 February election would go ahead as scheduled, only to postpone the vote amid the deteriorating security situation and organisational failure.
Key areas to monitor:
Electoral mobilisation and counter-insurgency efforts: Efforts over the next six weeks to disseminate voter cards and improve security in the northeast will be key indicators of the progress being made towards holding the 28 March elections on schedule.
Growing political tensions: The six-week delay allows more time for political tensions to increase in Nigeria, increasing the prospect of small-scale violence and protests by rival groups. In areas where rival political supporters and gangs are in close proximity, such as Mushin and Fadeyi districts in Lagos, there is a strong prospect of localised violence. The postponement has been widely condemned among PDP opponents and accusations of electoral fraud should be expected to increase.
Election security plans: Local authorities and security forces will announce details of security plans ahead of and during the vote. This will likely include restrictions on movement, such as road closures and possibly curfews in some areas considered particularly vulnerable to electoral violence. Travel should be minimised on the day of voting.