The Independent Electoral Commission (INEC) announced its decision Saturday based on the military's assessment that it could not guarantee security at the polls amid newly announced military operations in Nigeria's troubled northeastern states. The election were originally scheduled for this coming Saturday.
Few expect the military to significantly rein in Boko Harm ahead of the vote, now planned for March 28. And if election are delayed yet again, the government could end up holding power past the planned leadership transition on May 29. Such a crisis could throw Africa's richest and most populous country into a political impasse, threatening its already fragile peace and leading to major economic fallout.
The potential of a delayed vote to add to the woes of a country already facing sharp criticism for its inability to contain the Islamist insurgency is evident. The naira slid to a record low on international exchanges Monday, and Standard & Poor warned Tuesday that it might downgrade Nigeria's BB credit rating. Post-election unrest is expected in different parts of the country, especially in the southwestern states of Kaduna, no matter the winner.
“The postponement suggests desperation on the part of President Jonathan, who has a very strong contender to beat in the person of General Buhari, who has a nationwide support,” says Richard Akinola, a public affairs analyst.
Supporters of Mr. Buhari are questioning the security threat reasoning, and argue that the delay solely benefits the president.
“I ask Nigerians to question why these service chiefs decided to launch a major operation a week before the election,” Sen. Bola Tinubu, a leader of the opposition party, said in a statement Monday. “What is new about the security situation in the last two weeks that has not been there these past years? The date and importance of the election was well publicized.”
An electoral crisis
President Jonathan has promised that May 29, the date by which the constitution mandates a new president must be installed, is “sacrosanct.”
“INEC’s decision ought to not generate acrimony since it acted within its powers under the law and in consultation with all relevant stakeholders,“ Jonathan said in a statement.
Human rights lawyer Femi Falana admits that the INEC acted within its constitutional powers. But he accused Sambo Dasuki, the national security adviser who has called for a delay for weeks, of committing a coup against the constitution.
Mr. Falana warned in a statement that if Boko Haram is not contained before the new date, the election might be postponed indefinitely, paving the way for an interim national government.
Other experts say the delay gives the government more time to court local governments and reaffirm uncertain loyalties exposed during the campaign. State governors and local senators are key in ensuring a presidential win and shifting loyalties have left Jonathan's camp in a precarious position.
“The president is on the defensive. This is the first time since 1999 [when Nigeria regained its democracy after 33 years of on-and-off military rule] that the opposition is viable enough to unseat the president,” says Darren Kew, an expert on Nigeria at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, says. “They need more time.”
Buhari has made it clear that his party will not accept another shift.
“Our hope is that with this rescheduling, the security services will do their best to ensure that the security environment needed for safe conduct of the 2015 elections is rapidly put in place,” he said.
Asked what will happen if the military still fails to guarantee security after the extension, Mr. Jega, the electoral commission chairman, sidestepped the question, saying he is hopeful that necessary steps will be taken to hold the election.
The ability of the military to quickly defeat Boko Haram, even with a recent surge of multinational troops, is also in doubt. Nigeria and its neighbors are engaged in an intense anti-insurgency operation in which the African Union recently authorized the deployment of a 7,500-strong multinational force.
Last week, Nigerian and Chadian jets bombed the Islamic extremists out of a number northeastern Nigerian towns. The airstrikes forced the fleeing fighters into neighboring Cameroon, where they have since increased retaliatory attacks. They abducted about 30 people, including eight Cameroonian girls, in two bus hijackings in Cameroon and Nigeria this week.
Military sources tell The Christian Science Monitor that the goal of the Nigerian military is to dismantle all Boko Haram camps before March 28, after which attention can be given to supporting local police during the election.
How the military plans to push forward with the operation is unclear. But the promise of more action against Boko Haram has not shaken its leader, Abubakar Shekau.
“Your alliance will not achieve anything. Amass all your weapons and face us,” he said in a video released Monday.
Many Nigerians, especially those in the worst-hit northern states, are skeptical of the government's capability to root out Boko Haram in such a short period.
“I have my misgivings for the shift in the elections,” says Aminu Shettima, a civil servant from the northern town of Maiduguru, in Borno state, the worst hit by Boko Haram.
“But we will be very glad if it turns out to be a blessing in disguise for us should the federal government end the insurgency in our region,“ she says in a phone interview.
Skepticism also runs high within the Nigerian Army, which continues to struggle with defections and corruption. A soldier recently deployed from one of the military bases in the northeast pointed to inadequate equipment as a key concern.
”The main problem is lack of weapons, and unless this problem is solved by acquiring superior equipment, the nation may need to wait longer than the period given or choose to go ahead with the election in areas that security can be guaranteed,“ the soldier, who prefers not to be named to avoid violating military code, tells The Monitor.
”It's been a long time since weapons were bought, and I am not aware [if] the ones the federal government has been trying to buy have arrived. Even if they have, we need time to assemble them for use. How can we be using AK-47 against anti-aircraft weapons used by the Boko Haram?“
Although Boko Haram fighters have stolen high-level weapons from attacks on Nigerian military bases, it remains unclear how they acquired some of their most sophisticated ones.