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Nigeria’s postponed vote: What happens now?

18 February 2019

As the dust settles on Nigeria’s postponed general election, Nigerians have expressed their frustration with the electoral commission. But many are still optimistic their voices will be heard.

Nigerians were left reeling over the weekend after the much-hyped general election was postponed by a week just hours before polls were due to open on the morning of 16 February 2019, with officials citing logistical challenges.

A record 84 million registered voters were left angry and confused at the sudden turn of events — especially considering the long build-up to the election, which had been billed as the tightest political race in the country’s history.

“I’m sad. I’m angry. I’m annoyed. I’m disappointed. That’s how I’m feeling,” one Lagos resident told DW. “Because you wake up all excited about going to vote and then you look at your social media and you see that it’s been postponed.”

As the dust settles, Nigerians are once again preparing to head to the polls on 23 February. But at this point, there are still more questions than answers.

Was the postponement justified?

The electoral commission claims the election was postponed purely for logistical reasons and denied that politics played a role. 

“This was a difficult decision to take, but necessary for the successful delivery of the elections and consolidation of our democracy,” chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) Mahmood Yakubu said.

Officials reportedly met in the early hours of Saturday to discuss missing ballot papers and equipment which was destroyed in fires at INEC offices in Anambra and Plateau states.

Olayinka Ajala, a lecturer in politics at the Univeristy of York, thinks the officials probably made the right decision.

“If the election had not been postponed, those things would have been raised by the side which lost the election,” he told DW. “So I think it was justifiable.”

Workers dressed in yellow and wearing face masks unpack boxes filled with voting materials in Nigeria

Workers set up voting materials ahead of the general election which was postponed at the last minute

Nigeria is no stranger to elections being called off at the last minute. Back in April 2011, the electoral commission put a stop to electoral proceedings just hours after the ballot boxes had opened and postponed it by a further two days.

But many Nigerians were still puzzled over the timing of the announcement. “I’m not questioning INEC postponing the election, what I’m questioning is the timing,” one resident of Abuja told DW. “I’m really disappointed in INEC and I have no confidence in them because postponing an election on the eve of shows they have no competence. Why didn’t they inform people a week before?”

There is still no indication of how exactly the electoral commission plans to tackle the logistical challenges which led to the postponement — or prove beyond reasonable doubt that their decision was not a result of coercion. The electoral commission will also have to spend the next week trying to prevent already-distributed election materials from falling into the wrong hands.

Both sides accused of rigging

Rigging allegations have remained rife on both sides, which both major parties almost immediately blaming the other for orchestrating the election delay in order to manipulate the result. Before the postponement, both the ruling All People’s Congress (APC) and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) were accusing of attempting to tamper with election results by buying out biometric voter cards.

Incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari, who is seeking a second term in office, on Monday said he had ordered the police and military “to be ruthless” with vote-riggers. The opposition almost immediately criticized his comments as a “direct call for jungle justice.”

Incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari and the PDP's Atiku Abubakar in separate pictures side-by-side. They are both speaking into a microphone

Incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari (left) from the APC ruling party is running against the PDP’s Atiku Abubakar (right)

Ajala says that irrespective of INEC’s decision, a challenge to the outcome of the election by the losing party based on rigging was already expected.

“When you look back at all of Nigeria’s election since 1999, the losing party would always complain about the outcome,” he says. “I think it’s part of the process of our emerging democracy, to be honest. Regardless of whether the election was moved or not, there would be allegations of rigging or that INEC favored one party or another.

Counting the cost

Nigeria’s economy has also taken a hit since the postponement was announced, with Nigerian stocks falling to a one-week low on Monday.

Economist Bismark Rewane has already assessed the cost of the delay at approximately $9 to $10 billion (€7.95 to €8.80 billion), with much of this the result of businesses being put on partial shutdown on Friday and total shutdown on Saturday to allow employees to leave before movement restrictions were imposed.

Many would-be voters have also been left out-of-pocket, having spent a significant amount of money in order to leave the cities in which they work to travel to their home towns to vote. People had also planned important events around the day of election, which have now been thrown into disarray.

“A lot of weddings and events were put off on the 16th of February because of the election,” southern Nigerian resident Nnamdi Nwaubani wrote on the DW Africa Facebook page. “Come the 23rd of February, again every business and event will be put on hold.”

Two young boys in Nigeria walk past a stall covered in election posters supporting Muhammadu Buhari

Voters are placing hope in future generations who will shape Nigeria’s political future

Nigerians still determined to have their say

Although the postponement likely means that some people will not be able to repeat their journey to their home region this coming weekend, Ajala does not think it will seriously impact voter turnout.

“I don’t think the percentage of people who travelled long distances to vote is enough to actually make an impact on the outcome of the election,” he says.

Young people in particular — who represent the majority of voters — seem even more determined to cast their ballot in the wake of yet another chaotic election. Civil servant Mohammed Kabir works in Abuja and travelled more than 500 kilometers (310 miles) to cast his vote in Kaduna State. He is reluctant to place blame on the politicians and is instead hopeful that politics in Nigeria will evolve in time for the better. 

“There really is a need for the political parties to wake up and bring the young people in to politics,” he told DW. “We shouldn’t condemn people who are [older]. We need to mix it all together so that we can learn from them. When you learn from somebody’s mistake you will be able to correct your own mistake.”

Another young Abuja resident says that while he is frustrated with the postponement, he remains optimistic that people will make sure their voices are heard.

“We should stop thinking about what happened [on Saturday],” he told DW. “That day is gone. Nigerians still need to come out on February 23 and vote for the candidate of their choice because the future is in our hands.”

This report first appeared on DW, the German public service broadcaster.

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