Postponing Nigeria's Elections Buys President Time

4 MINS READFeb 10, 2015 | 22:06 GMT
Postponing Nigeria's Elections Buys President Time
Protesters demonstrate against the Independent National Electoral Commission's Feb. 7 decision to postpone Nigeria's presidential elections until March 28.
(STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images)

Following weeks of debate, Nigeria's electoral commission has postponed the country's presidential election from Feb. 14 to March 28. According to the commission, the military does not have enough troops to maintain security at voting booths after a major deployment of forces for an offensive against Boko Haram in the country's northeast. In reality, the six-week delay will neither make the affected areas safer nor prevent attacks on polling stations. Instead, the delay is meant to buy President Goodluck Jonathan time to recover after a month of political difficulties.

In recent weeks, Boko Haram has made advancements in a significant portion of Borno state in the country's northeast. Despite consolidating its gains there, the group has been unable to notably expand the territory it controls, even though it has fought intense battles near Maiduguri and in surrounding areas. An attack near Lake Chad received a great deal of attention for forcing Nigerian forces to abandon their positions in Baga. It was, however, relatively insignificant on a larger scale.

Still, over the weekend, the governments of Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon, Benin and Chad agreed to create a multinational force of 8,700 troops to combat Boko Haram in northeastern Nigeria, where attacks by the militant group have been particularly fierce. Niger's parliament voted unanimously Feb. 9 to contribute 750 troops to the unit after Boko Haram raided a prison and detonated a bomb in Diffa, a city on Niger's side of the border with Nigeria.

The recent uptick in Boko Haram attacks has given Jonathan an ostensible reason to delay the election and buy time to shore up his political support. In the next two months, Jonathan hopes to showcase progress against the militant group and see a partial recovery of the Nigerian economy, which has suffered from low oil prices, causing a dramatic decline in the value of the Nigerian naira. However, the multinational force is scheduled to deploy in March, and it is unlikely to make much of a difference before the election is held. Also, oil prices will remain low, meaning that an economic recovery will likely not have happened by that point either. While Jonathan could use more time to recover support, Jonathan has openly said the May 29 inauguration ceremony is set in stone, making further delays unlikely.

Boko Haram has also staged attacks to discredit the president by exposing his lack of control over the northeast. For instance, a suicide bomber attacked a Feb. 2 pro-Jonathan rally in Gombe after the president spoke. At the same time, opposition candidate Muhammadu Buhari has been building support and trails Jonathan by only a slight margin. The retired general and former leader of Nigeria has heavily campaigned on limiting corruption and toughening the response to Boko Haram. The public, mainly in the country's north, has been receptive to this platform, and now Nigeria is seeing its first real contest between two presidential candidates since transitioning to democracy in 1999.

While Buhari has not openly opposed delaying the election, he likely would have benefited from recent momentum had the vote been held on time. However, since the Nigerian military will not make any major gains against Boko Haram until the election, northeastern voters are expected to continue supporting Buhari. Jonathan's campaign knows this and has attempted to disqualify Buhari. Several members of Jonathan's People's Democratic Party have filed a lawsuit against him that will be heard in court on Feb. 23. This attempt is unlikely to succeed, though, because it would be seen as election rigging and would draw attention to the controversy over Jonathan's own eligibility to run.

Politically motivated violence is a common occurrence in the country, and Boko Haram will not be the only group employing it to secure votes or silence the opposition. Buhari could resort to violence to influence the election should exit polls project a Jonathan win, and if turnout is low, he could protest the results. While Jonathan would like to avoid this kind of scenario, violent confrontations between his and Buhari's supporters will likely occur if the election is disputed.

Even if he does win re-election, it is unclear whether Jonathan will be able to last four years in his post. His most daunting challenges will be winning the military campaign against Boko Haram and improving the security situation in the country, two tasks that will be hard to accomplish.

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