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Nigeria election delay marks yet another setback for democracy

Nigerians are debating whether the move to delay the parliamentary vote by two days once it had started on Saturday was necessary in order for the vote to be considered legitimate.

By Maggie FickCorrespondent / April 3, 2011

An electoral officer carries election materials as he leaves the polling centre after the postponement of the parliamentary election in Mushin neighbourhood in Nigeria's commercial Lagos, Saturday. Nigeria postponed parliamentary elections until Monday after voting materials failed to arrive in many areas, a major blow to hopes of a break with a history of chaotic polls in Africa's most populous nation.

Akintunde Akinleye/Reuters

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Lagos, Nigeria

Hopes that Nigeria’s critical elections would break the country’s pattern of poorly organized and fraudulent polls were dealt a blow on Saturday after the electoral commission announced a postponement of the parliamentary election once it was already underway.

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News of the last-minute, two-day delay – which was blamed on missing ballot papers and tally sheets in many polling stations – came as a surprise to many, partly because election commission chief Attahiru Jega told voters Friday that the electoral body was ready.

“The elections we are about to commence … provide a chance for us as a nation to get it right,” said Mr. Jega said on Friday, calling on all Nigerians to “join hands” to participate in a credible vote.

The postponement is a setback for Africa's most populous nation – also a regional economic powerhouse and the United States’ fifth-largest supplier of oil – and could be a bellwether for democratic trends on the continent.

This month's three-stage parliamentary, presidential, and state governor races could quickly improve or hurt Nigeria’s standing as an influential diplomatic force in Africa and on the United Nations Security Council on current crises such as the civil wars opening up in Libya and Ivory Coast.

The delay has already produced mixed opinions from Nigeria’s 73 million registered voters, ranging from frustration to acceptance that the move was necessary in order for the process to be legitimate.

“I think it’s for the best,” said Daniel Ebgeabu, a security guard in the posh Lagos Victoria Island neighborhood. “Nigerians don’t want a situation whereby we have bad elections, it will cause riots and many problems.”

Disappointment – and accusations

Not everyone shared Mr. Ebgeabu's calm acceptance, however.

“There must be foul play,” said a woman who works at a Lagos hotel but did not want to be identified. “And it’s bad for them to postpone until Monday because people will have to miss a day of work.”

Opinions also varied among civil society activists involved in extensive efforts to monitor the parliamentary, presidential, and state governor races that will take on three consecutive Saturdays this month and were set to kick off with Saturday's parliamentary vote.

“My clear sense is that it’s a logistical problem,” said Jibrin Ibrahim, director of the Center for Democracy and Development, by phone from Abuja after attending the press conference where the postponement was announced. “I think it’s massively disappointing for Nigerians because the [electoral commission] did say they were ready…but I think people are looking forward to credible elections and people would prefer a situation where the real problem is acknowledged and resolved,” Ibrahim said.

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