In the past three electoral cycles, election postponement has been the norm in Nigeria not the exception.
In March 2015, when Muhammadu Buhari defeated the then-incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan, electoral observers worldwide celebrated Nigeria’s general elections for being not only peaceful but also free, fair and credible. The elections also bolstered the image of the Nigeria’s embattled electoral agency, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), gaining widespread acclaim as evidence of Nigeria’s maturing democracy—a major break from the institution’s riddled history of electoral malpractices in Nigeria. Yet INEC appears to have tainted its reputation on Saturday when, five hours before polls opened, it postponed the highly-anticipated general elections by a week. The presidential and national assembly elections have also been rescheduled from February 16 to February 23, 2019. There are now fresh concerns over INEC’s ability to consolidate its goodwill and smoothly conduct the 2019 elections.
Currently, President Buhari is competing in a tight race with a former Vice President and political ally, Atiku Abubakar. In 2015, Buhari won the Nigerian presidency based on promises to tackle Boko Haram insurgency, fight corruption, create jobs, and revive the economy. While progress has been made in ‘technically defeating’ Boko Haram insurgents, the terror group still wreaks havoc in some parts of northeast Nigeria. Other frightening security challenges such as Fulani-farmers conflicts, widespread kidnappings and Biafra secessionist agitations have worsened since 2015. Moreover, despite Buhari’s fierce anticorruption efforts, Nigeria maintains an average score of 27 out of 100 in Transparency International’s Corruption perception Index. Last year, the country became the world’s poverty capital, with a staggering 23 per cent unemployment rate. As a result, the 2019 elections have been touted as a referendum on Buhari’s governance, just as four years ago it was for Goodluck Jonathan.
PDP front-runner, Atiku, is promising to turn things around through market-oriented reforms, such as the privatization of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, and an ambitious anti-corruption strategy that aims to strengthen the autonomy of anti-corruption agencies and tackle money launderings. However, all these promises seem questionable as he has yet to resolve his corruption allegations. 70 other presidential candidates are also vying to woo Nigeria’s 84 million registered voters, although such contestants are unlikely to make significant gains in the polls.
In the past three electoral cycles, election postponement has been the norm in Nigeria not the exception. In 2011, elections were postponed due to ‘late arrival of result sheets’ in some parts of the country. Similarly, at the peak of the Boko Haram insurgency in 2015, INEC postponed general elections for six weeks in order to allow the military to recapture some areas from the Boko Haram terrorists and ensure security during elections.
However, the reasons offered for the current suspension, like in 2011, indicate gross incompetence and inadequate preparation by INEC, both of which are concerning considering that the commission had four years and a N189 billion budget to prepare for the elections. In a press conference on Saturday February 16, the INEC chairman, Professor Mahmood Yakubu, admitted the agency takes ‘full responsibility’ of its failure to conduct the elections as scheduled. Yakubu mentioned that challenges caused by logistical difficulties and bad weather have prevented the agency from distributing electoral materials to several parts of the country, thereby triggering the need to delay the polls. The chairman also dispelled widespread rumours that the agency is planning to rig the elections when he announced that the postponement has ‘nothing to do with security, nothing to do with political influence, and nothing to do with availability of resources’.
Notwithstanding, the postponement has stoked up uncertainty and frustration across the country. Both major political parties have strongly condemned the delays, accusing each other of trying to influence the outcome of the elections. But, as former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson said, ‘a week is a long time in politics’; the political atmosphere in Nigeria can only be expected to get more tense as political parties go back to the drawing board to re-strategize on winning the elections. Indeed, the two leading parties have since vowed to continue their campaigns in defiance of INEC’s directives that such activities should be closed. There are also genuine concerns over the safety of sensitive electoral materials that have already been dispatched, in light of a fire that engulfed INEC offices in Plateau, Abia and Anambra states earlier this month, burning down items such as smart card readers and voter cards. Nigerians keenly await assurance from INEC on the whereabouts of electoral materials, which the commission claims it will provide later today.
The election delay also come at a huge cost to Nigerians. The Lagos-based financial intelligence firm, Nairametrics, estimated that the Nigerian economy has lost more than N500 billiondue to the postponement. Although INEC has not provided estimates of the costs it will incur by deferring the elections, it will cost the agency tens of millions of naira to retrieve all its materials to safe keeping and distribute them at later dates. Similarly, Nigerians who have travelled far and wide to cast their votes will have to incur double travel expenses for them to carry out their democratic rights. The delay will also cause major disruptions to individuals and corporations whose plans from weddings to business orders will need to be rescheduled accordingly. For political parties, an additional week is a test of which party has the deepest pockets to finance more campaigning and share funds and other items to as many electorates as possible in order to shore up voters’ momentum and secure the keys to the Aso Rock Villa.
Who Benefits from the Postponement?
Although it would be speculative to analyse how the postponement will influence electoral outcomes, I am of the view that it will favour President Buhari. This is because, firstly, Atiku does not have as strong a following as Buhari does in northern Nigeria, a region that weighs heavily in determining electoral outcomes. Thus, as the postponement is predicted to cause low turnout next Saturday, Atiku’s potential votes may plunge by higher proportions than Buhari’s. This is even more plausible given that Buhari has distanced himself from the postponement, thereby making it less likely for Nigerians to vote against him in protest over the delays. To contrast, in 2015, protests were directed at President Jonathan over his alleged support of INEC’s decision to reschedule elections, thereby adversely affecting his popularity during the polls.
Similarly, as Atiku has strong appeal among the Nigerian middle class and business owners, who are, obviously, more likely to travel to their hometowns to vote, postponing the elections may significantly decrease his votes, as such categories of people, having to extend their stays or arrange second trips, will be inconvenienced and the likelihood of them showing up to vote reduced. Atiku is believed to be popular among these groups because of his pro-business policies and emphasis on creating economic prosperity and ‘more billionaires’.On the other hand, Buhari, having championed himself as a pro-poor politician, has a greater political support among ordinary masses who mostly reside close to their polling units and may not have to incur even relatively significant extra travel expenses to cast their votes next Saturday. Therefore, while President Buhari might not have had any influence in delaying the polls, the consequences of the delay may potentially be to his advantage⎈
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