Only hours before polls were to open, Nigeria's electoral commission postponed elections scheduled for 16 February by one week. In this Q&A, Crisis Group's Nigeria expert Nnamdi Obasi says the commission and other authorities must act now to win back trust and reduce risks of violence.
Nigeria's 84 million voters were set to vote in presidential and federal legislative elections on 16 February. But at 2.40 am that day, just over five hours before polling stations were to open, the nation's election management agency, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), postponed the balloting. INEC's chairman, Mahmood Yakubu, announced a one-week delay to 23 February. He also said gubernatorial and state legislative votes would be rescheduled from 2 to 9 March.
Was there any forewarning of the delay?
The postponement came as a surprise. INEC had repeatedly told both Nigerians and international observers that it was fully prepared to bring off the elections according to schedule. Voters had gone to bed assured. Some had already gathered around their candidates' residences, all set to troop to polling stations at dawn. International observers had deployed teams across the country's 36 states and rented all the meeting rooms at the federal capital Abuja's five-star Transcorp Hilton Hotel, for use as situation rooms throughout the voting. INEC itself had set up its National Collation Centre at the International Conference Centre in Abuja, where it was to receive results from the states later in the day.
Why were the elections postponed?
Yakubu said the postponement followed a review of logistical and operational plans, which showed that proceeding with the polls as scheduled was no longer "feasible", even though as recently as 11 February, he had insisted that it was. The chairman claimed the commission had been unable to deliver election materials to all distribution centres and polling units across the country ahead of the vote.
He said that bad weather caused the delays, referring to the harmattan season, a period of dry, dusty wind that blows from Sahara over West Africa from November to about mid-February, often accompanied by a haze that reduces visibility. The weather conditions, he said, had prevented aircrafts carrying election materials from landing and forced the commission to rely on slow-moving long-haul trucks for ground delivery. Yakubu added that early February fires in three of INEC's offices, in Abia (2 February), Plateau (9 February) and Anambra states, also hindered its preparations.
The scale of the distribution problem remains unclear, as INEC offered no figures. On the eve of the elections, however, there were media and other reports that polling materials, including ballot papers and result sheets, had not been delivered in parts or all of several states, including Ekiti, Oyo, Taraba, Edo, Niger, Ogun and Rivers states.
Yakubu's explanations for the non-delivery are not entirely satisfactory. There were no weather-related impediments in southern states - Ekiti, Oyo and others - where materials went undelivered; other states lacking materials, like Kogi, are close to Abuja, and therefore required no airborne deliveries. More significantly, on 17 February, the Nigerian Airspace Management Agency tacitly disputed INEC's claims of flight constraints by saying it had made sure two days earlier that all the country's airports would be operational around the clock, precisely to facilitate the nationwide delivery of INEC's materials.
What has been the reaction?
The postponement has stirred a firestorm of condemnation among voters, aimed at INEC. Many voters had travelled long distances to their registration and voting areas (as required by Nigeria's election law) or had shut down their businesses for the weekend. Two main grievances feed the anger: the electoral commission had four years to prepare for the polls, yet failed to deliver, and it announced its decision only hours before voting was set to start.
Political parties have been similarly critical. The national chairman of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), Adams Oshiomhole, called the postponement a national embarrassment; the party's presidential candidate, the incumbent Muhammadu Buhari, said he was "deeply disappointed". The APC's chief rival, the People's Democratic Party (PDP), denounced the delay as "dangerous to our democracy" and demanded that the INEC chairman resign.
The two main parties have blamed each other for the postponement, claiming it to be politically motivated rather than dictated by circumstance. The APC alleged that the PDP, fearful of impending defeat, orchestrated the delay to buy more time to rally support. The PDP rejoined that the APC was behind INEC's "shoddy arrangements", and that it was seeking to regain ground it had lost in the last weeks of campaigning. Neither party has provided hard evidence to buttress its charges.
Civil society organisations are also aggrieved. The Nigeria Civil Society Situation Room, a network of over 70 organisations supporting credible, transparent elections in the country, expressed "disappointment", especially "against the background of assurances given by INEC on its preparedness" for the polls. The Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre demanded that the federal parliament launch an urgent investigation.
Not all reactions have been critical, however. Some media commentators take INEC at its word that it had to reschedule because free, fair and credible elections were in jeopardy. INEC, they say, was simply acting in accordance with its statutory powers. Others argue that a delayed but successful election is preferable to a timely but botched one.
Does the postponement increase the risk of violence around the elections?
It does. On 17 February, the National Association of Nigerian Students said it was calling a nationwide action to protest what it called a "show of shame and disgrace to a country". Thus far, neither this demonstration nor other street protests has occurred. But the postponement has heightened political tensions and sown conspiracy theories around the country, increasing the likelihood of disputes and violent incidents, both during and after the polls. Moreover, the delay has spread distrust of INEC's motives, which could lead to greater hostility toward its personnel during the elections.
What are the other costs of the postponement?
The rescheduling comes at great economic and psychological cost to all concerned, including the electoral commission, security agencies, political parties, local and international observation groups and, of course, Nigeria's 84 million voters. INEC and political parties have spent large sums, the former making election preparations and the latter recruiting and mobilising agents to keep watch at polling stations. Security agencies committed considerable resources deploying personnel across the country to guard against election violence. Normal life was disrupted by a police order prohibiting vehicle movement from 6am to 6pm on 16 February. That order shut down commercial transportation, as well as delivery of goods to small-scale enterprises such as markets and shops. Even after police lifted the order on election day, most businesses remained closed, as disillusioned voters stayed home lamenting the situation.
The cost to the nation's economy is similarly huge. At noon on 15 February, Nigeria closed its international borders, and many firms dismissed workers early to let them prepare for the polls the next day. On 16 February, air and sea ports were closed. Ken Ukaoha, president of the National Association of Nigerian Traders, said the country's trading sector lost more than 140 billion nairas (about $387 million). The Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry said the interruption of economic activity cost the nation no less than $1.5 billion, an estimate some analysts consider conservative. The postponement could slow down the economy until all the elections, from presidential to gubernatorial, are eventually concluded.
Beyond economic costs, the reputational damage to the country is substantial. The delay comes at a time when Nigeria is in the international spotlight. Following similar postponements in 2011, when voting was pushed back for a few hours due to logistical flaws, and in 2015, when polls were delayed for six weeks ostensibly to allow the military clear Boko Haram insurgents from parts of Borno state, INEC's decision creates further doubts about Nigeria's ability to manage its own electoral processes predictably.
What are the implications for the rescheduled elections?
If, as INEC claims, it postponed the vote strictly for logistical and operational reasons, then rescheduling may afford the commission time to rectify flaws and deliver more credible elections. For now, however, the delay raises several concerns.
An immediate concern is the security of ballots distributed to many states and local government areas before the postponement. These sensitive materials are vulnerable to theft or compromise.
Secondly, the conspiracy theories generated by the postponement could undermine faith in the outcome when polls are held. In particular, the two major parties' allegations, each accusing the other of colluding with INEC to put off voting, could erode trust in the electoral commission and increase the likelihood of post-election disputes.
Thirdly, the postponement could have double-edged effects on voter turnout on the rescheduled dates. On one hand, the public anguish at the delay could spur greater turnout among opposition voters determined to remove Buhari and the APC from power. On the other hand, and more plausibly, it could depress turnout, either because voters have simply lost interest or because they have lost the wherewithal. Nigeria's electoral law allows citizens to vote only where they registered: many must travel long distances to cast their ballots, and they may lack the means or the will to repeat the journey on the country's hazardous roads.
The postponement could also impair election monitoring on the rescheduled dates. Having depleted their resources deploying teams across the country for the 16 February voting, numerous organisations - particularly Nigerian ones - may be reluctant or unable to do it all over again. Deficits in deployment could constrain field operations and diminish prospects for free, fair and credible elections.
The delay may also affect the electoral fortunes of political parties, creating an even greater disparity between the two major parties and numerous smaller ones. The APC and PDP, which control federal and state governments, have the money to mobilise a second time, but smaller parties do not and will be hard pressed to raise fresh funds. The postponement has thus tilted the playing field to the major parties' advantage.
What should be done now?
Several key steps can ensure the success of the rescheduled polls on 23 February.
INEC should provide a more detailed explanation for its decision to delay the elections, in order to dispel the widespread suspicion that political interests manipulated it into doing so. It should take all feasible steps to ensure that all electoral materials distributed before the election was postponed are urgently retrieved and secured. In some states, resident electoral commissioners report that they are already gathering the materials for safekeeping in local branches of the Central Bank of Nigeria. The commission should immediately engage reputable audit firms to verify that all materials stored at Central Bank offices are intact. It should also engage with the security agencies to guard the retrieved materials until the rescheduled dates.
The INEC has less than a week to regain the Nigerian public's trust and the international community's confidence in its ability to conduct free, fair and credible elections. It should update the public daily on the progress of its preparations. Most importantly, the commission needs to adhere to the new election dates. Barring unforeseen developments, if it postpones the polls again or cannot conduct them smoothly on the new dates, it risks further damaging its own reputation, with potentially serious consequences for Nigeria's democracy and stability.
Other actors must also act responsibly. President Buhari should avoid any action that could further dampen public confidence in INEC. Sacking the INEC chair - as some opposition parties allege that Buhari wants to do - would be unhelpful, since it could lead to further delays or upheavals. Security agencies, particularly at state and local levels, should ensure that retrieved election materials are secure and reassure the public, for instance through the use of audit firms. Political parties - particularly the APC and PDP - should allow INEC to execute its mandate impartially and refrain from generating or echoing conspiracy theories for which they have no proof and which only undermine confidence in the electoral process. Political parties and civil society organisations, including the mass media, should step up messages to counter voter apathy and encourage turnout on the rescheduled dates.
Nigeria's international partners should also stay engaged. They should maintain close watch on the evolving situation and flag any indications of manipulation or intimidation of the electoral agency. Most importantly, international observers who were already in the country for the 16 February date, should be especially vigilant about the activities of the electoral agency and security forces, not only in those states where delivery of materials was delayed but also in others where already delivered materials could be tampered with.