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Nigeria: another chaotic election

16 February 2019

Hours before polling stations were set to open, Nigeria’s electoral body announced the postponement of the elections for logistical reasons – a deja-vu moment, writes DW’s Thomas Mösch.

The morning of February 16 seems all too familiar. It brings back memories of April 2011 when the electoral commission INEC, called off elections hours after(!) the polls had already opened and postponed it by two days. The reasons were similar: several regions had not received ballot papers and Attahiru Jega, the then chairman of INEC, declared elections could not be held under these circumstances. Just as today, Nigerians were confused, disappointed and angry. In the end, however, the majority lauded Jega for conducting the most credible elections Nigeria had seen, after years of military rule.

In 2015, Jega once again postponed the polls one week before the set election date. At the time security forces had warned the electoral commission that they could not guarantee safe polling due to the threat of the Islamist terror group Boko Haram. INEC postponed the elections for six weeks. Many feared that former president Goodluck Jonathan, whose popularity was waning at the time, would try to cling onto power. Nevertheless, the military was able to gain control of the situation and the elections saw the first peaceful change in power, with opposition candidate Muhammadu Buhari winning the elections.

Thomas Mösch

Thomas Mösch heads DW’s Haussa language service

Rumours and conspiracy theories

Will Nigerians, therefore, remain unshaken by this latest postponement?  Most Nigerians don’t seem to see it that way. Both on social media and on the streets, people are commenting that those responsible should be ashamed of themselves and that they are ridiculing the entire country.

And then there are the rumours: some claim that the move is a coup by the governing party, which is trying to undermine the opposition. Others say that the opposition bribed the electoral commission to buy more time to manipulate the polls.

To an outside observer, it is equally baffling that an electoral commission, which on Friday still claimed to have everything under control, could have been so wrong. Even so, the commission’s reasoning is not entirely implausible, as the last weeks‘ election preparations had been much slower than anticipated.

Who benefits from a delay?

Could there still be more to the election delay than meets the eye? Unfortunately, in Nigeria, nothing is impossible, which makes it difficult to argue against conspiracy theories.

The sudden delay could, of course, harm the opposition party PDP, which has spent large amounts of money, ferrying its party agents to all parts of the country  whether it be to simply observe the election process or to attempt to manipulate the vote. The ruling APC party would have had less money at stake since it would have been able to fall back on its agents working in government institutions in most parts of the country.

On the other hand, many Nigerians, not only hold the electoral commission, but also Buhari’s ruling party responsible for the delay. In the end, Nigerians might let their anger and frustration out on the ballot paper, causing further damage to Buhari’s already tarnished image.

The last two elections, however, show that only the election outcome can determine how free and fair the process was, whether the delay was a wise decision or gave the advantage to one party or another. One thing, however, is certain: Nigeria never fails to surprise, both positively and negatively. 

A version of this report was first published by DW, the German public service broadcaster.

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