Nigeria faces critical six weeks to election day

Attahiru Jega

INEC Chairman, Prof Attahiru Jega

INEC Chairman, Prof Attahiru Jega
INEC Chairman, Prof Attahiru Jega

Nigerians had been due to elect a new president on Saturday until the electoral commission delayed the vote by six weeks, citing fears about security and the ongoing Boko Haram insurgency.

The country will now go to the polls for presidential and parliamentary elections on March 28, with gubernatorial and state house assembly polls two weeks later on April 11.

The delay has triggered widespread debate about what happens next, particularly if no significant progress is made in tackling the Islamist insurgency raging in the north and there is a further postponement.

Amid fears of widespread violence, the coming weeks are seen as among the most important since civilian rule was restored in 1999.

“The next six weeks are laden with difficult struggles to protect Nigeria’s hard-won democracy,” the International Crisis Group’s Nigeria researcher Nnamdi Obasi wrote.

– Political argument –

Much of the discussion in the last week has centred on the Independent National Electoral Commission’s acceptance of advice from the country’s security chief and its impact on the political campaign.

The All Progressives Congress (APC) and its candidate Muhammadu Buhari were seen as mounting the first serious opposition challenge to President Goodluck Jonathan’s Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).

The result was even predicted to be close to call, with the prospect of the PDP being dumped out of power for the first time in 16 years.

Buhari, a former military ruler, called the election delay “a crude and fraudulent attempt to subvert the electoral process”, while the APC has alleged that the PDP used the military for political ends.

Jonathan’s campaign spokesman Femi Fani-Kayode described the APC as having “paranoid delusions” and “far-fetched and childish conspiracy theories” about the date shift.

The distribution of voter identity cards, which is not yet complete, and the ability to ensure security were “legitimate and genuine concerns” for a free, fair and credible election, the spokesman said.

– Legal action –

Should elections go ahead on March 28, they would be within the timeframe under electoral laws that stipulate voting cannot be held later than 30 days before the handover of power.

Jonathan, whose term of office expires on April 30, has twice described the May 29 date for the transfer of power as “sacrosanct”.

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But should he and his party not gain any advantage from the prolonged campaign and stall the APC’s momentum, the vote is likely to remain close — and could even lead to a re-run.

Legal action is a real possibility, particularly if the military is unable to secure and stabilise the restive northeast, allowing hundreds of thousands of displaced people to vote.

The APC has already said the integrity of the overall result would be in doubt if voters are disenfranchised in its stronghold in the violence-wracked northeast.

Court action could equally come from the PDP if there are further problems in issuing all voter cards to the 68.8 million registered electors or if there are claims from either side of voter fraud.

A key question will be whether any disputes can be resolved before the handover, particularly if there is a repeat of the deadly post-poll violence that killed some 1,000 people in 2011.

– Further delay –

National security advisor Sambo Dasuki has said the vote will not be rescheduled again but many believe his six-week deadline to effectively crush Boko Haram is unrealistic.

“Despite the recent interventions by Chadian and Cameroonian forces, Boko Haram has proved its continued ability to disrupt,” wrote Obasi, noting that a wider regional force has yet to deploy.

A slight delay after March 28 would still fall within the 30-day limit before May 29.

But Lagos lawyer Festus Keyamo warned: “Any further postponement beyond the 30 days to the May 29 handover date will be a recourse to civil disobedience and unrest.”

Violence “may prompt the military to seize power and truncate the current democratic dispensation”, he added.

Political risk consultants Verisk Maplecroft said unrest could at worst inflame tensions between the largely Christian south and Muslim-majority north.

It warned of a “post-election crisis — similar to Cote d’Ivoire in 2010/2011 or Kenya in 2007/2008 — potentially even escalating as far as civil war”.

The APC and others have recalled the political turmoil after military ruler Ibrahim Babangida cancelled elections in June 1993, when the business tycoon Moshood Abiola was set to win.

But Nigeria’s Attorney General Mohammed Bello Adoke dismissed talk of a military “interim national government”, saying there was no provision in the constitution implemented in 1999.

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