There was a whiff of something rotten in my kitchen on Saturday – and it wasn’t the cooking. No, it was emanating from the press conference I was watching live on my smartphone, in which Nigeria’s election commissioner announced that polling, scheduled for February 14, was to be postponed by another six weeks.
So now, tens of millions of Nigerian voters will have to wait until March 28 to choose between an increasingly embattled incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan (PDP) and his challenger Muhammadu Buhari (opposition APC). Governor races (including my friend and former CGD visiting fellow Nuhu Ribadu running as the PDP candidate in Adamawa State) must now wait until April 11.
Karen Attiah in the Washington Post also noticed the smell. The official reason for the postponement is that the military needs six weeks to launch a new offensive against Boko Haram and cannot guarantee election safety at the same time. This is potentially plausible. But here are five reasons why I’m skeptical.
What’s really going to change militarily in six weeks? There is close to zero chance that after years of losing ground, the Nigerian military can launch a successful counterinsurgency in the next few weeks and defeat Boko Haram. Even with massive external assistance (which Nigeria had been avoiding rather than encouraging) this is highly unlikely. So what happens in late March when Boko Haram is still a major threat?
Why the last-minute change? Any election in Nigeria is a security risk. The 2011 elections went pretty well and still some 800 people died. Even if the military is correct that all of their capacity is required in the northeast and thus can’t be deployed to provide poll security in the rest of the country, this was also known many months ago. The timing, so close to a tight election, is certainly suspicious.
Those with the most to lose still want to move ahead. Buhari’s base is the north and encompasses areas terrorized by Boko Haram. He would lose the most votes if turnout were suppressed by militant disruption (or fear of it). So, logically, it ought to be Buhari who is calling for a postponement to allow a counteroffensive. Yet the opposite is true: Buhari wants the elections to go ahead on time. He is now wisely calling for calm, but his position suggests something is amiss.
Imperfect elections are often better than none. Elections have been conducted under extremely difficult circumstances in lots of countries and still come off pretty well. A good analogy here may be Mali’s decision to proceed with national elections in July 2013 despite widespread concerns about insecurity in the north. It wasn’t perfect, but the election helped move the country forward.
Return of a politicized military? Nigeria has a long history of military coups (1966, 1975, 1983, 1985, 1993), an era everyone hoped ended with democratic elections in 1999. But are we confident the military’s rationale for postponement was entirely security-related? Any suggestion that the election commissioner might have been pressured by military chiefs for political reasons is worrying.
Why This Matters
The postponement matters to the tens millions of Nigerians who were preparing to choose their leaders in a highly-competitive election. That process is now thrown into deep uncertainty, just at a time when citizen confidence in the election has plummeted.
It matters for the region too. As the continent’s biggest country and largest economy, Nigeria is both the engine and the emblem of Africa’s rise. Its leaders should be champions for inclusive democratic development not voting shenanigans and backroom dealing.
And it matters for the West: America’s relations with Africa rely heavily on Nigeria’s role as a crucial economic and security partner. This explains why Secretary John Kerry flew to Lagos last month to urge a credible election and then why he issued an immediate statement expressing deep disappointment in the poll delay. The Kerry statement included a warning that “political interference… is unacceptable,” hinting that the US government isn’t quite convinced by the rationale for postponement either.
If the polls come off as planned on March 28 & April 11 and they go well enough, then this six-week delay will be forgotten. But if this is the beginning of a new period of political instability for Nigeria and an erosion in its democracy, then we will all come to regret the events of the past few days.
The writer is a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs.