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Rival parties play blame game after Nigeria election delay

By Eromo Egbejule
Posted on Monday, 18 February 2019 16:12, updated on Friday, 8 March 2019 12:08

A police officer stands guard as electoral worker carry electoral materials at the offices of the Independent National Electoral Commission in Yola, Nigeria, Friday, Feb. 15, 2019. Sunday Alamba/AP/SIPA

Rival parties have resumed campaigning following the electoral commission's announcement – just six hours before voting was due to start on 16 February – that the presidential elections would be delayed for a week because of late distribution of election materials for Nigeria's 84 million voters across the country.

The postponement has raised new concerns about the credibility and security of the elections following what has become a much tighter race between the two main candidates, incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari and challenger Atiku Abubakar.

Locked in crisis meetings over the weekend, the two main parties – the incumbent All Progressives’ Congress and the opposition People’s Democratic Party – lambasted the Independent National Electoral Commission for inefficiency but also accused each other of conspiring to benefit from the delay. The state governorship and assembly elections have been delayed until March 9.

What it means

Apart from ratcheting up partisan tensions between the two main rivals, the last-minute postponement makes it more likely that the losing party in the national contest will reject the result, triggering a lengthy stand-off. The new president is due to be sworn in by the end of May. Many important investment decisions may be put on hold until the outcome of the election is clear.

What the election observers said

Observer groups, national and international, have recognized the risks in the postponement but have tried to cool the political temperature:

  • Most critical of the commission’s postponement has been the Election Network, which groups national civil society groups: “INEC has had four years to do just one job, that is, to hold a smooth and credible election deemed free and fair by all involved. The fact that it waited until the morning of the elections to announce the postponement is an indictment on the capacity of its leadership.”
  • A joint mission statement of the Commonwealth, United Nations, Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), African Union and other observer bodies refrained from supporting INEC’s decision but merely said it had “noted” it and urged the umpire to adhere strictly to the new date of Feb 23. Some foreign observers said there were worried that the commission would not be able finish all the preparations, such as the reconfiguration of 180,000 biometric voter card readers, by 23 February.
  • Catriona Lang, British High Commissioner to Nigeria, signed a statement that said: “We recognise the frustrations of many Nigerians, including those involved in the delivery, supervision and observation of the election and those who travelled considerable distances to exercise their democratic right to vote.”

The parties double down

The two main parties are have accused each other of colluding with INEC over the postponement:

  • The PDP’s candidate Atiku Abubakar, a wealthy businessman and former vice-president, accused the ruling APC of pressuring the commission to postpone the vote to suppress turn out. “Their plan is to provoke the public, hoping for a negative reaction, and then use that as an excuse for further anti-democratic acts.”
  • The APC’s President Muhammadu Buhari said the security forces would crack down harshly on any electoral malfeasance: “I want to warn anybody who thinks he has enough influence in his locality to lead a body of thugs to snatch boxes or disarm the voting system, he will do it at the expense of his own life.”

The cost of the election delay

Millions of Nigerians in the Diaspora and elsewhere in the country travelling home to the areas they registered have been hit:

  • Hundreds of temporary workers recruited to help with the election slept in the street outside the electoral office in Kano, averaging 13-15 degrees Celsius at night, reported the Guardian in Nigeria.
  • Voter apathy could also set in. Across the country, 33.5% of eligible voters voted back in 2015 after a six-week delay of the presidential polls, according to Quartz Africa.
  • Some election observers, particularly international staffers, may not be able to stay for the duration of the national and the state election season.
  • The delay raises questions about INEC’s US $522mn budget for the elections and whether it can accommodate the extended schedule and extra work involved.

What’s next?

Both parties are calling for changes to INEC which could trigger further delays and will cause more incertainty about the vote:

  • Adams Oshiomole, national chairman of the APC, has called for a reshuffle of the top management of INEC for inefficiency and partisanship
  • The PDP questioned the status of an APC Senatorial candidate in Niger State who has been linked to a company contracted to provide biometric voters cards to INEC
  • INEC is yet to react to the main parties flouting its order to stop all campaigning ahead of the 23 election day
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