Nigerian civil society is in uproar over the pressure exerted by the military on the country’s election body to postpone scheduled voting by six weeks. But in the northeast, the heartland of the Boko Haram insurgency the security forces say they need more time to crush, there is support for a delay.
Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Attahiru Jega, told reporters on 7 February the military could not guarantee security for the scheduled 14 February presidential poll. With the lives of voters and INEC officials at risk from Boko Haram militants, he said he was forced to delay the presidential contest to 28 March and governorship and state assembly elections to 11 April.
Civil society groups have long-claimed the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) is trying to sow confusion in an exceedingly tight race. The National Council of State, an important advisory body to the president, on 5 February rejected any delay in conducting the elections. But that was trumped, said human rights lawyer Clement Nwankwo, by the security card played by the armed forces chiefs “acting in sympathy with the PDP”.
Political scientist Jibril Ibrahim agreed that the INEC had in effect been “blackmailed” by the military. “We always suspected their real objective was to create a constitutional crisis, to lay the ground for disrupting Nigeria’s democracy,” he said.
However, a six-week delay does not fall foul of the constitutional requirement that sets 28 April as the latest date by which the presidential election can be held.
The military says its troops are needed for a major offensive against Boko Haram in four northeastern states – Borno, Yobe, Adamawa and Gombe: part of a coordinated regional push against the jihadist group. There are no surplus soldiers to oversee the polls.
Many Nigerians do not buy the idea the army can make an appreciable impact on security in six weeks, particularly given the history of five years of military embarrassment at the hands of Boko Haram.
The election campaign momentum had seemed to be with the opposition All People’s Congress (APC) and its leader Muhammadu Buhari. “The government wants to stem that wave and use the six weeks to decide what to do with [an overly independent] INEC,” said Nwankwo. “My fear is that we’re not out of the woods yet, and are in fact heading for deeper trouble.”
Those protesting the postponement are willing to accept a limited franchise in the northeast to avoid what they perceive as the greater threat to Nigerian democracy of a delay.
The view from Borno
The Borno State capital, Maiduguri, is the birthplace of Boko Haram - and an APP stronghold. IRIN found there was intense disappointment over the election delay, but no real alarm.
“I woke up today [Sunday] to hear of the postponement,” said Asham Mohammed Ali, who struggles to feed her family grinding maize for her neighbours. “I feel very bad. Everybody hoped the election would be next week; but we just have to take it.”
Headmaster Suleiman Aliyu said: “Many people think there could be sabotage [of the electoral process]. But many people also say they have not yet received their [voters cards] from INEC. I for one don’t have mine. So that, combined with the issue of insecurity, means that a postponement will be for the best. It’s just six weeks – it’s not that long.”
More time, more voters?
Delays over the printing and subsequent collection of new biometric-tagged permanent voters cards (PVCs) was initially cited by INEC critics as a reason to delay the ballot. But initial setbacks seem to have been overcome. The INEC reported that 67 percent of PVCs have been collected, with Borno performing better than the commercial capital, Lagos.
In a quick poll of 10 people in Maiduguri, including five that had been made homeless by Boko Haram violence, five said they had their PVCs and intended to vote. The displaced had collected their cards from the official camps set up by the state government. Around one million people have been uprooted by the insurgency, according to official figures.
In total, some 46 million Nigerians have their PVCs – out of 68.8 million eligible voters. The INEC was hoping this election could set a record for voter turnout - historically no more than 30 to 40 million Nigerians brave the queues and customary chaos on polling day to cast their ballots.
A postponement will likely expand the pool of registered voters, as more people get hold of their PVCs.
“People want to vote, that is one reason why there hasn’t so-far been any unrest in the APP-controlled north or southwest,” said Michale Sodipo of the Kano-based Peace Initiative Network. “They hope that there will be change: but the fear is that PDP might spring a surprise.”
Saleh Mohammed fled Kondega, 34 kms north of Maiduguri, a year ago when Boko Haram overpowered the military garrison in the town. He had hoped the election would be held as originally scheduled so “people can get on with their lives”. But he agreed that a delay for security reasons “is a good idea”.
Right now he has confidence the government will not interfere with the work of the INEC. But should Jega be prematurely removed as its head, as some fear, “then we will know that something is afoot,” he said - and real trouble will follow.