ABUJA: Nigeria has postponed its presidential election on security grounds as the Boko Haram conflict intensifies, handing a potential lifeline to the ruling party as it battles a tough challenge from the opposition.
The six-week delay was announced on Saturday (Sunday in Manila) after security chiefs said the military needed more time to secure areas under the control of Boko Haram, the Islamist extremists who have seized swathes of northeastern Nigeria.
Presidential and parliamentary elections will now be held on March 28 instead of February 14 as initially planned, said Attahiru Jega, chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC).
Gubernatorial and state assembly elections will be held on April 11, he added.
Jega said security chiefs advised that the election should be postponed for six weeks as military operations in the northeast left troops unavailable to secure the vote.
“If the security of personnel, voters, election observers and election materials cannot be guaranteed, the lives of innocent young men and women and the prospect of free, fair and credible elections will be greatly jeopardized,” he told reporters.
President Goodluck Jonathan has been locked in a tight race with the main opposition candidate, former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari.
But with the campaign now extended, analyst Dawn Dimolo of the Africapractice consulting firm said the advantage could swing in favor of Jonathan’s People’s Democratic Party (PDP).
The PDP, never out of power since Nigeria returned to civilian rule in 1999, has the advantage of incumbency and access to greater funds than Buhari’s All Progressives Congress (APC).
The delay could allow the PDP to claw back votes but could equally boost the APC, which has repeatedly accused the government of trying to scupper the vote, said Dimolo.
APC national chairman John Odigie-Oyegun called the delay “a major setback for Nigerian democracy” and “highly provocative.”
But he added: “I strongly appeal to all Nigerians to remain calm and deist from violence and any activity which will compound this unfortunate development.”
Troops from Nigeria, backed by soldiers from Chad, Cameroon and Niger, have recently begun a joint fightback against Boko Haram as the conflict has spilled beyond Nigeria’s borders.
Since the turn of the year, the militant group has increased the intensity of its campaign, in part to further undermine the democratic process, which it views as un-Islamic.
Jega has previously conceded that voting would not go ahead in areas under Islamist control, raising questions about whether those displaced by the violence would be able to vote.
The insurgency has killed at least 13,000 people and pushed more than a million from their homes since 2009.
The APC has said the result of the election will come into question if the huge numbers of voters made homeless by the violence are disenfranchised.