The country was left disappointed when, very early on 16 February, it was announced that the presidential and National Assembly elections — scheduled for that day — had been postponed by one week until Saturday 23 February. The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) chairman, Mahmood Yakubu, made the announcement at around 03:00 local time, only five hours before polls should have opened, and cited ‘logistical issues’ as the cause for delay.
The announcement was met with considerable disappointment across the entire country. Many Nigerians across the country had travelled long distances back to their home city or state to vote only to find that the elections had been postponed.
Both the main parties expressed their dissatisfaction and accused each other of using the delay to their own advantage. The opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) was ‘never ready for this election’, read a statement released by Buhari’s Presidential Campaign Council.’ Meanwhile, the PDP opposition presidential candidate, Atiku Abubakar, accused
Buhari’s Administration of delaying the vote to ‘disenfranchise the Nigerian electorate in order to ensure that turnout is low’.
The postponement should, however, have been expected because the 2011 and 2015 elections were both postponed. On both occasions, tensions were running high and in both instances, a northern candidate was pitted against a southern one. This time round, however, both candidates are from the north. And, unlike the 2015 vote, both candidates have been heavily criticised for being below-par by many domestic and international critics. Against this backdrop, a delay is perhaps not the major problem that it may seem on the surface.
On the other hand, the move does exacerbate existing tensions across different parts of the country. In the political scene, both main parties heavily criticised one another of malfeasance and fraud. The legislative environment is worse. The Presidency has put the Chief Justice under investigation which has had a ripple effect across the judiciary, with onlookers criticising what they think is the Administration’s efforts to control the post-election legal environment.
In the North East, large parts of Borno and Zamfara states are unlikely to be able to vote because of armed banditry and ongoing insurgencies from Boko Haram’s two main factions. Thousands of voters have been displaced with no clear solution in place. Meanwhile in the southern oil producing Niger Delta, militants clearly support Atiku and some have threatened to disrupt the oil sector if Buhari is re-elected.
The postponement will almost certainly have a major impact on voter turnout on 23 February. The PDP will suffer more if this occurs because more new voters were likely to vote for the PDP than the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC). Nonetheless, the APC could suffer some reputational damage.
On a more intrinsic note, the postponement raises questions about the competence of INEC and its capacity to conduct free and fair election, and especially after many months of claiming that it would. Even though the INEC claims to have enhanced the voting process to ensure its credibility, the probability remains high that the election process will be slowed by the usual challenges such as: the late arrival of electoral officials; failure of smart card readers; and attempts to stuff ballot boxes with already thumb printed papers. Buhari’s recent order to the police and military to be ‘ruthless’ with vote riggers has only reduced electoral credibility even further.