Nigeria’s electoral commission has delayed the presidential election until Feb. 23, making the announcement a mere five hours before polls were set to open Saturday. It cited unspecified “challenges” amid reports that voting materials had not been delivered to all parts of the country.
Residents of Africa’s most populous nation and largest democracy will soon wake up to outrage. Many had relocated for the chance to vote.
“This was a difficult decision to take but necessary for successful delivery of the elections and the consolidation of our democracy,” commission Chairman Mahmood Yakubu told reporters in the capital, Abuja. He said more details would be released during an afternoon briefing.
A review of logistics, along with the determination to hold a credible vote, led the commission to conclude that going ahead with the election as planned was “no longer feasible,” he said.
Nigeria also postponed the last presidential election, in 2015, because of violence in the northeast, which remains under threat from Islamic extremists.
As word filtered out after midnight of a possible election delay, at least in some regions, the Nigeria Civil Society Situation Room, a collective that is monitoring the vote, said in a statement that “any suggestion that the election be held in a staggered manner will be totally unacceptable, and would be a recipe for a disastrous election.”
More than 84 million voters in this country of some 190 million had been expected to head to the polls in what is seen as a close and heated race between 76-year-old President Muhammadu Buhari and top challenger Atiku Abubakar, a billionaire former vice president.
Both have pledged to work for a peaceful election even as their supporters, including high-level officials, have caused alarm with vivid warnings against foreign interference and allegations of rigging.
“This is truly disappointing, but ... Nigeria will prevail,” the spokesman for Vice President Yemi Osinbajo said on Twitter, noting that Buhari was already in his hometown where he had been set to vote.
When Buhari came to power in 2015 he made history with the first defeat of an incumbent president, in an election hailed as one of the most transparent and untroubled ever in Nigeria, which had a history of deadly postelection violence.
Now Buhari could become the second incumbent to be unseated. His term has been marked by a crash in global oil prices that spun Nigeria’s oil-dependent economy into recession, from which it only emerged in 2017. Unemployment shot up. The country passed India as the nation with the most people living in extreme poverty. More than 13 million children are said to be out of school.
Insecurity on multiple fronts has seen little improvement, worrying neighbors of the West African regional powerhouse and beyond. While the military pushed Boko Haram extremists out of many communities in the country’s northeast, claims of the group being “crushed” have withered in the face of continuing violence. A new offshoot pledging allegiance to the Islamic State group has surged in recent months, attacking military bases — and this week, a governor’s convoy — sending tens of thousands of people fleeing anew.
On top of that, banditry in the northwest, oil militants in the south and deadly fighting in the central region between farmers and herders over increasingly precious land keep security forces stretched and the population on edge. On Friday, authorities reported at least 66 deaths in a single community this week in what one resident blamed on farmer-herder clashes.
“We love our country and we need our country to be safe from all the violence ... and all the nonsense that takes place during election time,” Amin Muhammad Khalif said as he emerged Friday from prayers in Kano, the second-largest city in a country roughly split between Muslims and Christians.
Even in the fight against corruption, in which Buhari could claim some progress, many in Nigeria have expressed concern that those targeted are mostly opposition figures.
Meanwhile, many Nigerians worry about Buhari himself after he spent more than 150 days outside the country for still-unspecified medical treatment. Spare in both charisma and physique, Buhari spoke for just a few minutes at his final campaign rally on Thursday and struggled to hear or grasp a number of questions in a recent televised town hall.
Borrowing a page from President Trump’s playbook, top challenger Abubakar has campaigned on the theme of “Let’s Make Nigeria Work Again,” while vowing to apply his business acumen to privatize Nigeria’s all-important state oil company and lift 50 million people out of poverty by 2025.
Despite such proclamations, Abubakar has never managed to shake years of corruption allegations. Addressing his rival’s promise, Buhari grumbled in his final preelection address Thursday that one “cannot simply proclaim jobs into existence.”
In the end, the now-delayed vote could come down to the sorry state of Africa’s largest economy and people’s empty pockets, and stomachs.
In Abuja, 56-year-old Bako Sharibu was wrist-deep in a dumpster as he fished out pieces of plastic for recycling. His shy smile disappeared as he recalled that he once had good work as a janitor. Now he struggles to make his target of 300 naira — about 83 cents — a day.
“Everybody suffers too much. Hungry everywhere,” he said, adding that if he could save a few thousand naira he would send the money to his three children in northern Kaduna state, where child hunger is particularly acute.
Then he shook his pocket. It was near sunset. He had just 50 naira in hand.
He will be voting for Abubakar, he said. Nigeria needs change.