Nigeria's Last-Minute Postponement Throws Vote Into Disarray
(Bloomberg) -- A last-minute delay of Nigeria’s general elections by a week has thrown Africa’s biggest democracy into disarray and carries dangers for both President Muhammadu Buhari and his main opponent, Atiku Abubakar.
While the electoral commission said the postponement barely five hours before polls were due to open Saturday was for logistical reasons, it reinforces opposition criticisms that state institutions under Buhari aren’t independent or competent enough. The threat to Abubakar’s campaign is that the delay will discourage voters in areas where he needs a high turnout to win. Millions of Nigerians had traveled to their hometowns to cast their ballots.
The decision heightened tensions in what has been a tight race between Buhari, a 76-year-old former military ruler, and businessman and ex-vice president Abubakar, 72. Analysts were split down the middle over who would win. Both Buhari’s All Progressives Congress and Abubakar’s People’s Democratic Party condemned the delay.
“There is a possibility that popular anger and the manner of the postponement could galvanize more people to come out to vote,” said Cheta Nwanze, head of research at SBM Intelligence in Lagos, the commercial capital. “If there is a higher turnout then, the PDP will win the election. But if the turnout is successfully repressed, the APC will win.”
Buhari left his hometown of Daura, in Katsina state, where he had traveled to vote, to return to the capital, Abuja, his personal assistant Bashir Ahmad said on Twitter.
The president said in a statement he was “deeply disappointed” after the electoral body’s “assurances, day after day and almost hour after hour that they are in complete readiness for the elections.”
His opponent Abubakar described the delay as part of a plot by Buhari’s APC party to ensure a low turnout.
“I call on all Nigerians to be patient,” Abubakar, who had traveled to his northeastern hometown of Yola, said in a statement. “We have tolerated the maladministration of this government for four years. We can extend our tolerance a few more days and give them our verdict via our votes.”
Expectations that the vote would go smoothly buoyed Nigerian equities and bonds in recent weeks. The stock market is up 7.1 percent this month, the second-best performance globally, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Investors may turn bearish next week if they think the delay was down to political machinations, according to Robert Omotunde, head of investment research at Lagos-based Afrinvest West Africa Ltd.
Independent National Electoral Commission Chairman Mahmood Yakubu announced the postponement at about 2:45 a.m., saying “proceeding with the election as scheduled is no longer feasible.” Polling centers across 36 states and the federal capital were initially meant to open Saturday at 8 a.m.
He later told reporters INEC had faced difficulties arranging a general election involving around 100 parties, 23,300 candidates and 84 million registered voters. Bad weather had disrupted flights distributing election materials, while three commission offices in the east of the country were burned in acts of “sabotage,” he said, without explaining who was responsible.
“The election postponement was not influenced by security, neither was it delayed by politics,” he said. “The challenges, even under the best circumstances, are enormous.”
As well as pushing back the presidential and parliamentary vote, INEC delayed governorship elections for a week until March 9.
Nigerian elections are regularly postponed. A week before the 2015 presidential and parliamentary vote, it was moved back by more than a month. Buhari went on to win and become the first opposition candidate to take power through the ballot box in Africa’s biggest oil producer. The vote four years before was delayed after balloting had already started.
“Some of it is incompetence, frankly,” said Amaka Anku, Africa analyst at Eurasia Group. “You put someone in charge of something and they say yes everything is fine until they can’t cover up anymore.”
In northeastern Nigeria, three suicide bombers struck a mosque in the city of Maiduguri around 5:45 a.m. on Saturday, killing eight people. A police spokesman said they were suspected militants of the Boko Haram Islamist group.
Maiduguri is the capital of Borno state, the epicenter of Boko Haram’s decade-long insurgency to impose its version of Shariah law on Nigeria. The city has mostly been secure in recent months, even as Boko Haram and a breakaway faction affiliated to Islamic State have wreaked havoc in the rest of Borno.
The election postponement “will almost certainly create an environment of heightened anxiety and distrust,’’ Ronak Gopaldas and Ryan Cummings, directors of Cape Town-based Signal Risk, said in an emailed response to questions. “Allegations of vote-rigging and electoral manipulation will inevitably follow, with opposition threats to boycott the vote possible.”
U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo spoke to Buhari and Abubakar on Friday, telling them that “the conduct of the elections is critical for the future of democracy in Nigeria and across Africa,” according to the State Department.
The delay has “caused a great inconvenience to many Nigerians,’’ Senate President Bukola Saraki, who’s a member of the PDP, said in a statement. “The costs of this postponement are incalculable.’’
(Updates with INEC comment in third paragraph under ‘Investor Concern’ subhead.)
--With assistance from Dulue Mbachu, Ruth Olurounbi, Emele Onu and Tope Alake.
To contact the reporters on this story: Elisha Bala-Gbogbo in Abuja at firstname.lastname@example.org;Solape Renner in Abuja at email@example.com;Paul Wallace in Lagos at firstname.lastname@example.org;Emele Onu in Lagos at email@example.com
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Karl Maier at firstname.lastname@example.org, Karl Maier, Sophie Mongalvy
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