Criticism mounted on Sunday over Nigeria’s decision to postpone national elections by six weeks because of Boko Haram violence, with some insisting President Goodluck Jonathan’s political woes were the true cause of the delay.
Election body chairman Attahiru Jega announced the postponement for presidential and parliamentary polls from February 14 to March 28 late Saturday, citing guidance from the national security advisor (NSA).
Gubernatorial and state assembly elections will be held on April 11.
The NSA, Sambo Dasuki, had written to Jega last week explaining that security could not be guaranteed on February 14 because all available military resources had been committed to an intensified operation against Islamist rebels in the northeast.
“The security agencies forced (Jega) into postponing on an issue that is frivolous,” said Jibrin Ibrahim, a political analyst with the Centre on Democracy and Development.
“They say they need six weeks to defeat Boko Haram. Boko Haram has been growing for six years If in six weeks Boko Haram has not been defeated, they could call for another delay and ultimately destroy Nigerian democracy,” he added.
The vote was expected to see the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) face its first serious electoral challenge since the end of military rule in 1999.
Many observers believed that the opposition All Progressives Congress (APC), led by ex-military ruler Muhammadu Buhari, had seized the momentum in the campaign against Jonathan.
Buhari, who has positioned himself as Nigeria’s top anti-corruption crusader, was thought to have locked up a majority in the mainly Muslim north, his home region, while building support among southerners fed up with graft.
The APC called the postponement “highly provocative” and “a major setback for democracy” but appealed for calm.
The United States said it was “deeply disappointed” by the delay, with US Secretary of State John Kerry warning the Nigerian government against using “security concerns as a pretext for impeding the democratic process.”
The PDP said it welcomed the postponement because “it was in the best interest of democracy.”
Analysts have said the PDP could use the extra time to rebuild lost support, noting that its superior financial resources put the ruling party in a far better position to run an extended campaign.
– ‘Other variables’ –
National security chief Dasuki first mentioned the prospect of a postponement last month when he noted struggles in distributing voter identity cards.
Jega on Thursday said his Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) was ready for February 14 – more prepared than INEC was for 2011 polls – and that 66.5 percent of Nigeria’s 68.8 million registered voters had collected their cards.
A meeting of the powerful Council of States which includes Jonathan, past presidents and state governors ended on Thursday with the council telling Jega to move ahead with the February 14 date if he legitimately believed INEC was prepared.
On Saturday Jega said “other variables” aside from voter card distribution made a delay necessary, specifically mentioning the fact that the military “may not be able to provide the traditional support they render,” during elections.
There had long been security concerns about voting in Boko Haram’s northeast stronghold, where hundreds of thousands of people displaced by fighting faced disenfranchisement.
But Jega had previously told AFP that the crisis in the northeast would likely not undermine the national poll results.
The unavailability of soldiers to secure polling stations nationwide had not been widely discussed and election day security has previously been led by police and a civil defence body.
A coalition of more than 20 civil society groups late Saturday said the military’s inability to deploy for the election amounted to “an abdication of its constitutional duties.”
The postponement “appeared contrived to truncate the democratic process in Nigeria,” the coalition said.
– New offensive –
Neighbouring Chad, Cameroon and Niger have in the past two weeks stepped up their joint efforts with Nigeria against Boko Haram.
The multinational offensive has claimed major successes this month, including the recapture of several key towns previously under Islamist control.
Experts say further gains are possible over the next six weeks but note that Boko Haram has proved resilient throughout the six-year conflict.
“To dislodge Boko Haram from all these areas in a period of six weeks would be an unprecedented feat,” said Ryan Cummings, chief Africa analyst at Red24 risk consultants.