A mood of disappointment has taken over the Nigerian public after presidential elections were postponed for a week, until 23 February. Putting off presidential elections seems to have become the order of the day since the “restoration of democracy” in 1999 in Africa’s most populous country.
Just like this round, “logistical” reasons were behind the delay of the 2011 and 2015 presidential elections.
Competing candidates and their parties denounced the latest postponement, although they urged the public to remain calm. The delay was announced by Mahmood Yakubu, president of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), only a few hours before polls were due to open.
Thousands, if not millions of people, knew about the delay after they had arrived at their polling stations. Out of Nigeria’s population, estimated at 190 million people, 84 million people have the right to vote.
“Following a careful review of the implementation of its logistics and operational plan and the determination to conduct free, fair and credible elections, [INEC] came to the conclusion that proceeding with the elections as scheduled is no longer feasible,” the INEC statement said.
“Some sensitive materials have been distributed. However, all such materials have been retrieved and will be taken back to custody of the Central Bank of Nigeria,” Yakubu said.
Seventy-one candidates are contesting the presidential elections. Other elections taking place in Nigeria 9 March are for the governorship for 36 governorates, the State House of Assembly and the Federal Capital Territory Area Council, that sometimes see the number of candidates reaching 8,878.
The presidential elections are heating up between the ruling All Progressive Congress candidate, President Muhammadu Buhari, who is seeking a second and last term, and his main rival from the People’s Democratic Party, Atiku Abubakar, who served as vice president from 1999 to 2007 under Olusegun Obasanjo.
“Many people believe that the government created an enabling environment for the postponement,” Auwal Musa, executive director of the Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre, was reported by Agence France Presse as saying in a televised interview.
“A week’s delay will do no contester any good. In addition, this is a repetition of what was said in 2015 that the government took part in the put-off of the presidential election, which was won by then-opposition candidate Buhari,” said Fadl Abdel-Razek, a professor of mass communications at Kano University.
The fact is, however, the delay will affect the total number of voters. Scores of Nigerians travelled to the location of their polling stations and returned to their homes without voting.
They will find it difficult to make the trip once more, because of the high cost of travelling in a country where millions live below the poverty line.
The race between Abubakar and Buhari is tight. The president has not been successful in his war against the terrorist group Boko Haram, that intensified its attacks in the months leading up to the presidential elections.
Buhari is a former general who led a coup and ruled the country for 20 months in 1983-84. In 2015, he promised the Nigerians that if elected he would terminate Boko Haram — a promise he failed to keep.
Tens of millions of young Nigerians, who were born after the instatement of democracy, will be voting for the first time. The political orientation of the youth block is yet unknown, and they can easily turn the traditional political game in Nigeria, long controlled by the military, tribal leaders, clerics and businessmen.
Whoever wins the presidential elections, this is going to be the last race for Buhari, 76, and Abubakar, 72.
Nigeria is swamped by conflicts. Other than terrorist attacks by Boko Haram, there are clashes between farmers and nomadic herders over dwindling arable land in Nigeria’s central states and tensions in the oil-rich Delta in the south. Despite being the largest oil producer in Africa, Nigeria is also suffering a sharp shortage in electricity.
According to Forbes magazine, Nigeria houses the biggest number of billionaires in Africa. It may also be true Nigeria is one of the world’s biggest cinema and music producers, but it is still ruled by conservative religious leaders and sectarian tensions.
Bloody confrontations ensued last year between the police and Shia Muslims — in a country where the majority are Sufi Maliki Sunni Muslims — after the detention of religious leader Ibrahim Zakzaky.
In October, violent clashes between Muslims and Christians left 55 dead, following a row between wheelbarrow porters in the northern town of Kasuwan Magani.
Without harmony between Nigeria’s groups, “our everyday businesses would be impossible to achieve,” Buhari said after the row, while presidential spokesperson Garba Shehu said Buhari found the country’s frequent use of violence in such disputes “worrisome”.
Although Buhari and Abubakar are both Muslims, they are addressing all Nigerians, each presenting his presidential programme as the most suitable for all citizens, regardless their religion.
Throughout the presidential campaign, Abubakar, with the assistance of his mentor Obasanjo, who led a coup in the late 1970s and ruled Nigeria from 1999 to 2007, has been trying to win the minds of Christian voters in the south, a stronghold for the People’s Democratic Party. Whereas Buhari is trying to maintain his voting base in the Muslim-majority north.
Like in the 2015’s presidential campaign, Buhari is now promoting himself as the strong general who can win the war against Boko Haram’s terrorism and rid the country of deeply rooted corruption.
Regardless the result, whoever wins the presidential seat will be faced with heavy political, developmental and cultural burdens, not to mention the ticking bomb of population. Nigeria’s populace is estimated to reach 400 million by mid-century.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 February, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Frustrated Nigeria