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Nigeria's ruling party regains ground after election delay (+video)

The six-week postponement was presumably intended to give the government time to focus on Boko Haram. But it's also helped President Goodluck Jonathan improve his chances. 

At the popular and frenzied Ojuelegba roundabout in downtown Lagos, people gather at newsstands to read the latest headlines and debate the question of the day: Who will win Nigeria’s presidential election next week?

Though the topic has been discussed ad nauseum for months, people here still spend hours passionately arguing the same points.

But the tone of those who gather at this 24-hour transportation hub has changed in recent weeks, as Nigerians tire of the nonstop election coverage and the roller coaster tensions caused by each political maneuver. They are ready for it to be over.

“This election should come and pass. Nigerians will survive,” a young bus driver from the suburb of Ikeja says. “Whoever wins, let it be.”

As Nigeria enters the final week of a months-long campaign, the opposition All Progressives Congress (APC) has worried that an election delay has handed an advantage to incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan and his Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).  The election was originally scheduled for Feb. 14, but Nigeria’s electoral commission postponed it to March 28 to give the military time to take on Boko Haram

The polls still show opposition candidate Muhammadu Buhari and President Jonathan are neck and neck, but the APC feels the delay has handed the advantage to the ruling party. The APC says Jonathan and the PDP are using the threat of the Islamist militant group to slow down their campaign and access to government money to keep its campaign teams rolling, while APC coffers are running dry.

“Beginning again is like pushing the bus to start,”’ says Ejike Ogoegbunam, an APC candidate for the House of Assembly in Anambra State who has recently been campaigning in his village of Awkuzu. “The postponement was a masterstroke by President Goodluck Jonathan to stop the momentum of the APC because he saw that if the elections were held then, APC would have won."

Pat Utomi, a professor of political economy at the Pan-Atlantic University in Lagos, says the election was postponed to “slow down the momentum of the APC that had captured the imagination of the public” and to push “the election to the point where the opposition would run out of campaign money.”

Regardless of the electoral commission’s motives, Jonathan is reaping the benefits of its decision. During the six-week delay, his government has led a seemingly successful fight against Boko Haram. Lt. Gen. Tobiah Minimah, the Army chief of staff, told reporters Tuesday that troops have repelled the Islamist militants from all but three local government districts in the northeast. But it remains unclear how the military's success will translate for Jonathan come Election Day, especially amid reports that troops from Chad and Niger have done much of the heavy lifting. 

APC’s financial woes

In addition to losing some of its momentum, the APC is also struggling to keep up in campaign funding. Mr. Utomi says the government has succeeded in financially crippling the APC. "The opposition seems to have run out of money.”

Many APC candidates have scrambled to find more funding after budgeting for a shorter campaign. They accuse PDP candidates of using state coffers to help bankroll their extended campaigns and are wary of more delays.

“You cannot compete with those with unlimited pockets or those who [have] access to state funds,” says Mr. Ogoegbunam.

Darren Kew, an expert on Nigeria at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, says the PDP is using the money and the additional time to buy back support from local officials who are responsible for tallying votes. 

"This will likely help shift some of the swing states back toward the president’s column, but it may not be enough to break the APC’s momentum,” he says. “The presidential race is still likely to be close and will probably have to go to a second round of voting."

Between December and February, the PDP spent about $17 million on campaign advertising and the APC spent a mere $7 million, according to a report by the Center for Social Justice (CENSOJ), a civil society organization in Nigeria.

Both parties, according to Eze Onyekpere, who heads CENSOJ, have soared beyond the legal limit of about $1 million. Though he asked the electoral commission to warn the parties, spending has continued into the final week.

Ogeogbunam is seeing the results of the spending imbalance first hand. If he wins, he plans to form farming cooperatives to help raise the income of his constituents. But he cannot compete with candidates who dangle bags of rice and cash before voters. While voters appreciate his ideas, they cannot resist the temptations coming their way because of the level of poverty, he says.

“So, you are not sure whether what you are doing is worthwhile,’’ he says.  

Mr. Kew says the most significant aspect of the election is control of local political machines, which allow the parties to alter the vote counts in their favor.

"In that regard the deeper pockets of the PDP may tip the balance in the end," he says.

While reading a paper at the Ojuelegba roundabout, Daniel Owolabi, a recent college graduate, says money shouldn't make a difference. He canvassed and mobilized students at the University of Ilorin for Jonathan when he last ran, but this time he says he'll vote for Buhari.

“By the grace of God, Buhari will win the election,” he says.

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