Associate Fellow, Africa Programme
Leena Koni Hoffmann
Associate Fellow, Africa Programme
The fragile state of the country has brought fears of political deadlock, violence and erosion of democratic institutions.
People protest the postponement of elections on 7 February 2015 in Abuja. Photo by AFP/Getty Images.People protest the postponement of elections on 7 February 2015 in Abuja. Photo by AFP/Getty Images.

Today, 14 February, Nigerians were expecting to vote in what would probably have been the most hard-fought and unpredictable elections since the return to civilian rule in 1999. But with a six-week postponement announced less than a week before election day, the timing of the contest has become a matter of controversy that threatens this diverse giant’s stability and democratization. With an economy battered by the oil price drop and a deepening security crisis, a deeply flawed or outright cancelled election could be a devastating blow to the country.

The official reason for the delay is the threat from Boko Haram: a new offensive against the insurgents was announced, which security agencies suggested would leave them distracted and unable to provide adequate security nationally during the polls. 

But this sudden emphasis by security forces on the worsening crisis in the northeast, given that Boko Haram extremist violence has been decimating the area since the sect’s re-emergence in 2010, is being read by many as a cynical ploy to derail the democratic process and maintain the governing People’s Democratic Party’s (PDP) hold on power. The PDP has towered over Nigeria’s political landscape since the transition to democracy but recent polls showed that Nigeria’s largest and most cohesive opposition party, the All Progressives Congress (APC), had a credible chance of winning.

Security sector overstretch during elections taking place in a tense and polarized context in many parts of Nigeria was a real risk. But the Nigerian military’s admission that it is unable to spare resources to protect voters while simultaneously fighting Boko Haram points not only to the weakness of other institutions like the police but also, worryingly, to the potential for further delays to the electoral process. 

As popular outrage over the postponement turns to acceptance, politicians are ramping up the rhetoric and seizing the opportunity to capitalize on fears on all sides. This is Nigeria’s longest period of uninterrupted civilian rule and the tense atmosphere has heightened fears of widespread insecurity and uncontrollable violence. Nothing that happens in Nigeria does so in isolation. In a year when many countries in the region will conduct elections, the delay sets a worrying precedent and its potential for trouble will be of wider concern.

The notion that the military can pause the democratic process has also been a cause for national unease given Nigeria’s long history of military rule.

Speculation is rife as to exactly how the election was stalled. The most popular theory is that the PDP, suddenly aware that they might not win, entrapped the chairman of the Independent National Election Commission (INEC), Professor Attahiru Jega, by colluding with the military to force him to postpone the elections. INEC had initially rejected a proposal from the PDP − outlined by National Security Adviser Sambo Dasuki at a Chatham house event in January − that the electoral body needed more time to distribute permanent voter cards to Nigeria’s roughly 69 million registered voters. INEC insisted that the commission was adequately prepared for the elections, and the suggestion was unpopular with the APC, but was taken up by the PDP, as well as many of the smaller parties.

Pressure began to mount, and after INEC consultation meetings with stakeholders on 7 February, the postponement was announced. Presidential and National Assembly elections would now take place on 28 March, with state elections to follow two weeks later. It was very telling that on the day Jega faced the press and announced the election postponement he could not guarantee that there would be no further shifts in the date.

Nigeria’s constitution stipulates that the elections must be held at least 30 days before the end of the incumbent’s presidential term. The current administration ends on 29 May.

But the real fear among Nigerians is that the elections might never happen.

One rumoured scenario is the formation of an interim unity government. But again, this has stoked fears of stagnation as all concerned parties squabble their way into a political and legislative stalemate. And with the taint of potential participation of security service chiefs it could bring Nigeria too close to the costly and corrupting military rule of years past.  Such a unity government will not only bring to a near halt any important bills being passed into law, but would also undercut the APC as Nigeria’s first opposition party that presents a genuine national alternative to the PDP.

Whatever happens in the next six weeks, Nigeria’s fragile democracy would struggle to survive another deeply flawed election. 

Disappointed voters are caught between the triumphalism of the president’s transformation agenda and the doomsday predictions of the opposition party.

Nigeria’s resource-driven economy has been shocked by a sharp drop in oil prices and currency devaluation. The climate of uncertainty that the elections debacle has created will make investors nervous and freeze economic decision-making by the federal government. The election delay serves no real purpose in addressing Nigeria’s fundamental challenges with gross wealth inequality and even the Boko Haram insurgency. In the four previous elections since 1999, Nigeria’s economy and relative security have been strong enough to withstand the unrealistic and overinflated promises of power-hungry politicians, but 2015 will see the truest test of its national unity and democratic transition.

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