Presidential election delay throws Nigeria into disarray

Logistical and operational concerns necessitated delay, electoral commission says

Muhammadu Buhari, who is seeking a second term as president of Nigeria. Photograph: Luc Gnago/Reuters

Muhammadu Buhari, who is seeking a second term as president of Nigeria. Photograph: Luc Gnago/Reuters


Nigeria was thrown into disarray on Saturday after its presidential election was delayed just hours before polls were set to open, in a dramatic late-night move that drew accusations of sabotage from the two leading candidates and sparked frustration among voters.

The decision could upend the lives of millions of Nigerians who had returned to their hometowns in order to vote in presidential and parliamentary elections, many at great personal cost in a country with 87 million people living in extreme poverty.

While appealing for calm, the two major party candidates and their surrogates lashed out at each other. A spokesman for Muhammadu Buhari, who is seeking a second term, said he had received the announcement “with great disappointment”, and suggested that “this postponement has been orchestrated with the main opposition” party.

Opposition candidate Atiku Abubakar said the delay was proof of his repeated accusation that the president of attempting to rig the election.

“By instigating this postponement, the Buhari administration hopes to disenfranchise the Nigerian electorate in order to ensure that turnout is low on the rescheduled date,” he said in a statement. “They are desperate and will do anything in their power to avoid their rejection by the Nigerian people.

“Their plan is to provoke the public, hoping for a negative reaction, and then use that as an excuse for further anti-democratic acts.”

Operational concerns

The independent national electoral commission chairman, Mahmood Yakubu, said early on Saturday morning that the delay was needed because of logistical and operational concerns, in order to ensure the vote would be free and fair. “The commission came to the conclusion that proceeding with the election as scheduled is no longer feasible,” Mr Yakubu said.

A senior diplomat said discussions of a delay began because eight states and the Federal Capital Territory have “distribution issues related to sensitive materials”.

Mr Buhari has repeatedly promised free and fair elections, but fears of fraud persist across the country.

Though vote-buying and voter intimidation remain common, international observers say Nigeria’s electoral system is far more robust than it was in past elections, including 2007 when, many Nigerians believe, an election criticised for widespread irregularities was stolen from Mr Buhari when he was the main opposition candidate.

A senior international observer in Nigeria said the delay would be considered suspicious as it extended beyond two or three days, “but [the electoral commission] is terrible at logistics, [there were] delays in both 2011 and 2015 . . . [a short] delay is not uncommon”.

The 2011 election was delayed by a week because of logistical and security issues. In 2015, the election was delayed by six weeks because of the Boko Haram jihadist insurgency.

“This is better than going forward and chaos tomorrow,” the international observer said.

On Friday as Nigerians speculated online on whether the election would be held, some observers questioned what it said about the country.

“Whether elections hold tomorrow or are postponed it is a shame on @inecnigeria that there is suspense & uncertainty about whether elections will hold less than 24 hours to the polls,” wrote Ayisha Osori, head of the Open Society Initiative of west Africa. “Irresponsible & indicative of the dysfunction & usual ineptitude that characterises government.”

The night before the election, 66 people were killed in eight villages in Kaduna state in the north, in an act of apparent banditry, which is afflicting wide swaths of the country’s northwest. The incident was not thought to be election-related, nor to have had any bearing on the electoral commission’s decision. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019