Early in the morning on Saturday, February 16, just hours before polls were scheduled to open, the Independent National Elections Commission (INEC) postponed Nigeria’s elections by a week. The national elections have been pushed back from February 16 to February 23, and elections at the state level from March 2 to March 9. The delay is not without precedent; national elections were postponed in 2011 and 2015. According to INEC Chairman Mahmood Yakubu, “a careful review of the implementation of its logistics and operations plan” made it clear that “proceeding with the elections as scheduled is no longer feasible.”
With more than 80 million registered voters and almost 120,000 polling places in a country with poor infrastructure, logistical issues would appear to be a credible reason for postponing the elections by one week. However, many Nigerians are not buying it. Instead, they are seeing the postponement as part of a strategy to throw the elections, most often to incumbent president Muhammadu Buhari. They note that INEC had given assurances twenty-four hours before the polls were to open that all systems were go. The current INEC chairman lacks the personal prestige and reputation for integrity enjoyed by his predecessor Attahiru Jega, further fueling skepticism about INEC’s “excuses.”
Postponement, so their argument runs, will reduce the electorate because many Nigerians who traveled to their home villages to vote will need to return to their place of work; they cannot afford to be away from work for a week. Nigerians are also concerned that postponement provides more opportunity for the incumbent powers to buy votes and deploy security services to intimidate voters.
The leading opposition candidate, Atiku Abubakar, has issued a statement claiming that the Buhari administration postponed the vote to ensure a low voter turnout. In addition, “their plan is to provoke the public, hoping for a negative reaction, and then use that as an excuse for further anti-democratic acts.” Atiku called on his supporters to be patient and not to react with anger and violence that could be exploited “by those who do not want this election to hold.”
Most observers think the election will be very close. There were signs over the past two weeks that sentiment among Nigerian movers and shakers is shifting toward Atiku, but Buhari, with the advantages of incumbency and control of the election machinery, could yet prevail. Indeed, Buhari removed for alleged corruption the chief justice of the Supreme Court, who would preside over election disputes brought to court. INEC had also appointed Amina Zakari, Buhari’s niece, as head of the presidential elections collation committee. Past elections have been rigged at the collation stage, and two 2018 gubernatorial elections were distorted by vote buying and security service intimidation that kept voters away from the polls. Civic organizations as well as Atiku supporters are concerned that history may repeat itself.