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.

Akintunde Akinleye/Reuters
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.

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.

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.

Other observers said the postponement could bode poorly for the entire process, which is expected to become increasingly contentious due to the possibility of a run-off in the presidential race next Saturday and to the numerous hotly contested governor races to be decided on April 16.

“It’s painful,” said Kunle Amuwo, senior researcher on Nigeria at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, noting that Saturday’s poll, “should have been a testing ground” for the April 9 and 16 votes.

A tense, quite Lagos

Nigeria – the cultural, economic, and diplomatic powerhouse of West Africa – doesn’t do anything on a small scale, or quietly.

But an eerie quiet reigned on Saturday in Lagos, the sprawling commercial capital of the continent’s biggest economy, as voters walked to polling stations due to the government’s severe security measures prohibiting movement of vehicles during polling.

Contributing to the state-of-emergency-like feel in Lagos, where federal helicopters flew overhead throughout Saturday morning, Nigeria’s land borders were closed Saturday night. The government’s National Emergency Management Agency has deemed one-third of the 36 states to be “flashpoints” for potential electoral violence.

Poor track record

Whether or not the bolstered security measures will prevent serious violence in the country’s more contentious races – on April 9 for the presidency and on April 16 for the state governorships – remains to be seen. Nigeria’s track record in the three multiparty polls held since the transition from military dictatorship to civilian rule in 1999 does not bode well for the prospect of peaceful or legitimate polls.

In 2007, the European Union, which is also observing this year’s contests, called the elections among the worst it had ever witnessed, and Human Rights Watch said that more than 300 were killed in violence related to the polls. Lesser numbers were killed in 2003, but as in 2007, rights groups said that abusive practices were pervasive and accountability for electoral crimes nonexistent in the aftermath of the polls.

During the run-up to this years vote, Nigeria appeared to be making an effort to put its history of badly flawed elections behind it, making the announcement of the postponement all the more worrisome.

“Ordinary Nigerians generally expect the 2011 elections to be better than 2007,” said Nigerian political analyst and Open Society Institute fellow Ike Okonta. He explained that the optimism is based mainly on the faith many Nigerians have in the leadership of the electoral commission and on the perception of incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan as a competent and law-abiding leader – relatively rare traits among Nigerian politicians.

Despite these positive signs, the cards remain stacked against a vote free of intimidation and violence. Assassinations, bombings, and political rallies turned street brawls have marked the run-up to the polls, stoking traditional north-south tensions and widening existing fault lines that crisscross this diverse country.

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