Nigeria’s Elections: A Perilous Postponement
Nigeria’s Elections: A Perilous Postponement
The Promise and Potential Pitfalls of Nigeria’s 2023 Elections (Online event, 23 February 2023)
The Promise and Potential Pitfalls of Nigeria’s 2023 Elections (Online event, 23 February 2023)
nigeria-12feb15
A man walks past a portrait of Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan, who began his campaign on Wednesday for a second-term in office in Lagos, 8 January, 2015. REUTERS/Akintunde Akinleye
Commentary / Africa 8 minutes

Nigeria’s Elections: A Perilous Postponement

Crisis Group’s Africa Program assembled this Question & Answer paper following the recent postponement by six weeks of Nigeria’s general elections that were due on 14 and 28 February.

Why are the postponement, and Nigeria’s wider electoral challenges, important for Africa?

Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country (est. 178 million) and largest economy (GDP over $500 billion). The growing risk of instability could have profound security, humanitarian and economic implications. Furthermore, any subversion of the country’s democratic progress could dampen democratic developments on the continent. In West Africa, particularly, Nigeria’s election was supposed to be the first of six such polls this year. The postponement is a poor example to a region already going through numerous upheavals.

What are the implications of this postponement for the elections? 

The postponement gives President Goodluck Jonathan, candidate of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), six extra weeks to rally support and undermine the candidate of the All Progressives Congress (APC), former military head of state Muhammadu Buhari – and, in Nigeria, an incumbent president has enormous powers and resources to do that. But the postponement will also intensify the long-running acrimony between the two major political parties, aggravate tensions between the north (largely Muslim and pro-Buhari) and the south (largely Christian and substantially pro-Jonathan) and could provoke further violence. Moreover, as the role of the military in the postponement has raised serious questions about its political neutrality, opposition protesters may not accept the army as a credible peace enforcer if, as it seems likely, post-election violence erupts.

How and why were the elections postponed?

On 7 February, the chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Attahiru Jega, announced that national and state elections, originally scheduled for 14 and 28 February, had been postponed to 28 March and 11 April, respectively. This added further tension to what was already the most contentious election season since Nigeria turned from military to civilian rule in 1999, with violence rising ahead of the polls and mounting risks of violence afterwards.

The first call for postponement came from President Jonathan’s National Security Adviser (NSA), Sambo Dasuki, in Chatham House, London, on 22 January. The call, he said, was based on his observation that INEC was yet to deliver Permanent Voters’ Cards (PVCs) to millions of voters.

This raised public objections with many questioning the NSA’s improper attempt to influence the electoral commission. Nonetheless, on 4 February, Dasuki increased the pressure for postponement by writing to INEC indicating security could not be guaranteed in fourteen local government areas in the north east where Boko Haram has been waging a brutal insurgency since 2010 (Nigeria has 774 local government areas). He strongly advised INEC Chairman Jega to reschedule the elections by six weeks, arguing that such a shift would still fall within legal provisions and that the government “hoped” to restore normalcy to the north east by then.

The next day, 5 February, at a meeting of the National Council of State (NCS), a consultative forum comprising current and past presidents and chaired by President Jonathan, military and other security chiefs told the INEC chairman that they had just launched a major, decisive offensive against Boko Haram, which would last six weeks. They said they would have no troops to provide security and logistics support for elections through those weeks. Despite this, the NCS did not endorse postponing the vote.

Following further pressure to defer election dates, on 7 February, Jega held consultations with civil society leaders and election agency officials from all over the country, but concluded that: “The commission cannot lightly wave off the advice of the nation’s security chiefs”. He therefore postponed the election by six weeks.

How credible is the claim that INEC was not yet prepared for the elections?

The commission was evidently struggling. On the PVCs, it had reported that 45.1 million out of 68.8 million registered voters (66 per cent) had collected their cards. This meant about 34 per cent had not. But the commission also said it was increasing its delivery rate ahead of the 8 February deadline for collecting the PVCs. Up until his 7 February press conference, Jega was still affirming that: “Our level of preparedness, despite a few challenges, is sufficient to conduct free, fair and credible elections as scheduled on February 14 and February 28” and that INEC was “capable of delivering even better elections” than the 2011 polls. These were widely acclaimed as successful, although over 1,000 people were killed in post-election violence.

How credible is the military and security services’ claim that they were concentrating assets and resources on an offensive against Boko Haram and so would have no personnel to support elections? 

That claim is disputable. First, election security is primarily the responsibility of the police and the civil defence corps, with the military only being required to support these agencies in accordance with the Electoral Act. On 2 February, the Inspector-General of Police, Suleiman Abba, had asserted that the police was ready to tackle all security issues concerning the elections, pledging it would take “all lawful measures to ensure the safety of Nigerians at all times’’.

Secondly, the claim by the military chiefs directly contradicts their earlier public positions. At a 2 February meeting of the National Peace Committee for the 2015 Elections, chaired by former head of state, General Abdulsalami Abubakar in Abuja, the chief of defence staff, Air Chief Marshal Alex Badeh, chief of army staff, Lt Gen Kenneth Minimah and chief of air staff, Air Marshal Adesola Amosun gave firm assurances that they were ready for the elections, and were already supporting INEC by airlifting election materials. It is therefore difficult to reconcile their claim that there would be no troops for election security with their assurances only a few days earlier.

Could the push for postponement have been politically motivated, a charge opposition leaders and other Nigerians are making against President Jonathan? 

The postponement seems to have been motivated by politics rather than security. Over the previous few months, public backing for Jonathan and his ruling PDP had shrunk. This was due to alarming gains by Boko Haram in January, economic strains arising from the slide in global oil price, and his administration’s inability to show real progress in fighting corruption and improving infrastructure since 2010. At the same time, the APC has won support. It held its primaries peacefully last December, and subsequently projected its presidential candidate, Buhari, as better able to fight insecurity and corruption. In January, some opinion polls, notably by Afrobarometer, reported that the election race had become too close to call; others, including some online initiatives by Jonathan’s social media aide, Reno Omokri, showed Buhari was heading to victory. The postponement was therefore seen as an effort by Jonathan and the PDP to buy time and fight the opposition’s rising support more aggressively.

Since delaying the election gives the two parties equal time to campaign, why is it so dangerous?

This delay is problematic for two reasons. First, the rationale the government offered in pushing for the delay is unconvincing: there is no guarantee that the security situation, grim for much of the past two years, will improve dramatically in six weeks’ time. Despite the recent interventions by Chadian and Cameroonian forces, Boko Haram has proved its continued ability to disrupt. It staged assaults on Niger’s border, and seized a bus and abducted its passengers on a border town with Cameroon. The 7,500-strong Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF), authorised by the African Union on 30 January, is yet to start deploying. If the security situation does not improve substantially by the end of March, there are serious concerns about what will happen next. A second election postponement would undoubtedly trigger wide-scale protests in the country.

A second problem is the manner in which the postponement was pushed through. House minority leader, Femi Gbajabiamila said: “The independence of INEC has been put to question …. Its powers to determine election dates have been usurped and the military now determines when we can have elections in this country. That is a dangerous precedent”. The decision to postpone the polls should have been the result of all stakeholder consultations and consensus rather than arm-twisting and blackmail. A notable lawyer, Femi Falana, has questioned the legality of the procedure leading to postponement, arguing that the NSA acted beyond his constitutional powers by writing to the INEC chairman directly, that only the National Security Council, of which the NSA is only one member, had the mandate to do that.

How have the political parties reacted to the postponement?

Jonathan’s PDP and fifteen other smaller parties have welcomed the change of dates. APC’s Buhari has expressed “disappointment and frustration”, but appealed for calm. However, he also warned that any further postponement will be firmly resisted. Eleven other parties, under the Coalition of Progressive Political Parties, expressed disappointment with INEC’s decision but also urged Nigerians to accept the new dates.

What has been the reaction from the public?

Public opinion is divided. Some say the postponement will enable more voters to collect their PVCs. For the majority, however, the postponement was a cynical attempt to cling to power, aggravating the president’s credibility problem, and a rude disappointment.

In recent months, many had seen the elections as an opportunity to oust corrupt and ineffective leaders and representatives. A recent survey by the Centre for Law Enforcement Education (CLEEN Foundation) and Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA) reported about 89 per cent of voters were willing to vote. As Jega observed at his 7 February press conference: “Many people will be very angry and annoyed”.

What has been the public reaction to the military, considering its role in postponing the elections?

The reaction has been largely negative. On 7 February, even before the postponement was announced, the Nigeria Civil Society Situation Room, a network of about 70 civil society organisations, called on all military and police chiefs to resign, saying that they had failed in “their constitutional responsibility to secure lives and property at all times including during the elections”. On 9 February, another coalition of eighteen civil society organisations condemned the service chiefs “for arm-twisting INEC’’ and for abdication of national responsibility. Speaking on the coalition’s behalf, the chairman of the Transitional Monitoring Group (TMG), Ibrahim Zikirullahi, said it was “a clear indication of the abyss to which the military had descended”.

House of Representatives spokesman, Zakari Mohammed, has warned that using the “military for political reasons” could have serious consequences. Furthermore, if the military chiefs are eventually found to have been complicit in any fraudulent attempt to keep Jonathan in office, they could be inviting a revolt from their own officers.

What is likely to happen between now and the expiration of the six weeks?

Jonathan and the PDP are likely to do everything to regain the initiative. First, they will press on with law suits already in court, seeking to disqualify Buhari over questions of his birth certificate and educational qualifications. Second, they could oust Jega (by sending him on terminal leave), replace him with a more pliable successor, then push for more time to enable the new election commission chair to settle down before holding any elections. Third, they may push to stop INEC from using the new electronic PVC-card readers, intended to deter election-day fraud. The government’s argument could be that INEC has not tested the card reader in any previous local election and should not use the presidential and National Assembly polls to do so; but the real objective could be to eliminate the card readers in order to make vote-rigging easier. Fourthly, as several cases about the elections and candidates may still be pending in courts by 28 March, PDP agents or sympathisers may seek court injunctions to stop the elections until all such cases are resolved. The next six weeks are laden with difficult struggles to protect Nigeria’s hard-won democracy.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.