ABUJA, Nigeria — A week before Nigerians were to head to the polls to choose their next president, in what was expected to be the most competitive election since the country returned to democracy in 1999, Nigeria’s election commission pulled the plug. The move left some disillusioned Nigerians frustrated by the delay but relieved that any potential unrest surrounding the election would also be postponed.
At a late-night press conference Saturday, Attahiru Jega, chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), announced that the vote would be delayed until March 28 so Nigeria’s security forces can have more time to secure the country.
Radical armed group Boko Haram has taken over towns and villages in the country’s northeast, declaring their intention to establish a state ruled by their interpretation of Shariah. The group has killed thousands of Christians and Muslims alike and kidnapped hundreds of women and children. Even before the vote was delayed, the INEC said it wouldn’t open polls in areas where Boko Haram is active.
Two days after the delay was announced, Nigeria’s National Security Adviser Sambo Dasuki said the government would use a new task force composed of troops from Nigeria and neighboring countries to eradicate Boko Haram camps.
They planned to do this in six weeks, despite the fact that the group has been rampaging across the northeast for over six years, with a death toll in the thousands.
The decision to delay the election was decried by many in the country’s leading opposition party, the All Progressives Congress, whose candidate, former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari, was seen in a recent survey to be neck and neck with incumbent Goodluck Jonathan.
Jonathan’s party, the People’s Democratic Party, accepted the INEC’s verdict.
Even before the postponement, however, many Nigerians had low expectations for the election. A Gallup poll released in January showed that only 13 percent of Nigerians had confidence in the election’s integrity. Among those who disapproved of the sitting government, the rate was a dismal 8 percent.
Nigerians haven’t always had such low confidence in their electoral process,Gallup polls show. In 2011, 51 percent of people were confident in elections, a number that the pollster’s data show has plummeted over the years.
But the ongoing Boko Haram attacks, delays in getting voters cards distributed and tensions among Nigeria’s many ethnic groups have some voters relieved by the postponement.
“It’s a good thing for all Nigerians,” said Samuel Sunday, a market trader in the capital, Abuja, who hasn’t decided on a candidate yet. “People were afraid about the elections.” Many traders who, like him, belong to the Igbo ethnic group, which predominates the southeast, a Jonathan stronghold, were leaving Abuja and other cities farther north. Buhari is expected to get most of the votes in the north, and Igbos are a minority in the country’s northern half.
Sunday said many Igbos who left were scared they would be targeted in postelection rioting. “The tension now come down, and people are now feeling lively,” he said.
Voters’ disillusionment has many roots, analysts say. Election results are often challenged in court, and politicians spout fiery rhetoric that can incite violence.
“The stakes are very high. Both sides are frequently fighting to the death, as it were. No side is able to concede to the basic decency with each other,” political commentator Chris Ngwodo said. “People look at all that, and they react by being skeptical, by being cynical.”
But that isn’t to say Nigerians are apathetic over who will run their country for the next four years.
Rallies organized by the All Progressives Congress and the People’s Democratic Party regularly draw thousands of Nigerians, who hope their candidate can improve conditions, create jobs and fight off Boko Haram.
But amid a global drop in the price of oil — Nigeria’s key export — there’s skepticism whether whoever wins will have the money to improve the livelihoods of Nigerians, almost half of whom live under the national poverty line.
“Since the First Republic, politicians have been making the same arguments in the country,” said Abubakar Kari, a lecturer at the University of Abuja, referring to Nigeria’s government from 1963 to 1966, which ended in a military coup. “In most cases, these are promises that are hollow and empty.”
Even with the delay, questions remain over whether all eligible Nigerians will be able to vote. The INEC has distributed only about 67 percent of voter cards, Jega said. That leaves millions of people without the identification necessary to vote.
And ridding the country’s northeast of Boko Haram in six weeks — even with the help of neighbors Chad, Niger and Cameroon — is, at the least, a daunting prospect.
Boko Haram’s campaign of violence has displaced about a million people, either out of the country or to towns and cities Nigeria that Boko Haram hasn’t attacked.
That flight has effectively disenfranchised people; only Nigerians in Nigeria may cast ballots, and many displaced people fled Boko Haram’s advance without their voter cards.
And if polls don’t open in swaths of three northeastern states hardest hit by the group, the election results will be wide open to a court challenge, Kari said. “If at the end of the day, elections do not take place in all three states, it means 5 million registered voters are not voting, and that can have an effect on the outcome of the election,” he said. “In any case, whether they vote or not, Nigeria’s presidential election always ends up in court.”
Voters have two main candidates to choose from, both of whom have histories in Nigerian politics.
Jonathan, a former vice president, took office in 2010 after President Umaru Yar’Adua died in office. Jonathan then won election in 2011. His campaign has centered on the narrative of continuity. Billboards put up by his supporters around Abuja advertise the trains, roads and schools that are on their way — if only the president can have more time.
Buhari, who has run for president and lost three times, has dismissed Jonathan’s claims of success. Buhari claims his experience in the military and as the nation’s ruler from 1983 to 1985 gives him the wherewithal both to run the government and defeat Boko Haram.
The group’s advances in the remote northeast stand in contrast to Nigeria’s economic ascension. The country overtook South Africa to become the largest economy in Africa after rebasing its GDP last year.
New construction is springing up across cities like the commercial capital, Lagos, which, among other projects, is the site of Eko Atlantic, a massive planned neighborhood built on a spit of landfill extending into the Atlantic Ocean.
But opulent projects like Eko Atlantic offer little for Nigeria’s legions of poor people.
Forty-six percent of Nigerians live below the national poverty line, according to the World Bank. Public utilities like electricity barely work. Those who can afford it resort to generators for electricity.
Tijani Shidu, an artist, said his belief in the incompetence of the current government is one reason he plans to vote for Buhari. The road to his hometown in the central state of Kogi is in disrepair, and he rarely has electricity at home. He blames Jonathan for both.
“It’s only now that things went wrong that insecurity became the order of the day,” he said.
Despite all the promises, Ngwodo said people probably won’t see too many changes in their lives right away, regardless of who wins. If anything, Nigeria is in for lean times.
Oil makes up 70 percent of government revenue, according to Nigeria’s finance minister, but with the price of a barrel now below $50, Ngwodo expects Nigeria’s state and federal governments will have to tighten their belts substantially.
“Whichever government does come in will have to implement austerity. In several states across the country, we’re likely to see massive job cuts” and perhaps even a reduction in the national minimum wage, he said.
For many, issues aren’t always the deciding factor in Nigeria’s elections, Kari said.
“I don’t think the politicians in Nigeria’s elections are voted on the basis of promises,” he said. “It’s where you come from, your faith, your ethnic group, your religious group and so on and so forth. Concrete issues play insignificant roles.”
The government has set high expectations for its performance over the next six weeks. But some Nigerians just want to get it over with.
“I wanted them to come, the election, so that this thing will come and pass,” said Juliet Jevizu, a phone credit seller who plans to vote for Jonathan.
Her colleague Barnabas Ayatu said he doesn’t know who will get his vote. But he can’t anyway: He lost his voter’s card, and whenever he has gone back to his hometown to get a new one, elections authorities turned him away, saying they didn’t have electricity to make him a card.