At about 2:30 am on February 16, 2019, five hours before the polls were due to open, the chairman of Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Mahmood Yakubu, announced in a press release that Nigeria’s general elections had been rescheduled to February 23, with state elections moved to March 9. At a stakeholders meeting later that day, he said that the “adjustment” was “painful…but necessary in the overall interest of our democracy.” He cited several reasons, including logistical challenges with the delivery and distribution of election materials and fire incidents at INEC offices in Abia, Anambra, and Plateau states, which he put down to sabotage. Reactions to the meeting indicated that many people thought he was either being economical with the real reasons for the postponement or struggling to explain a bad situation.
Predictably, there ensued a flurry of heated and densely satirical reactions from Nigerians. They were especially incredulous because, until the very last minute, INEC had given repeated assurances that the elections would be held as originally scheduled. Some attributed the election postponement to incompetence, in-fighting, and a lack of cohesion within INEC. Members of the international community and election observers have been more measured but no less unequivocal in expressing their surprise and disappointment.
The postponement also sparked a series of conspiracy theories, claims, and the deployment of misinformation that has stoked distrust, fed accusations and counteraccusations of political manipulation between political parties. The opposition Coalition of United Political Parties (CUPP) alleged that President Muhammadu Buhari’s All People’s Congress (APC) had surreptitiously disrupted the elections to create a ruse to dismiss Yakubu and replace him with Amina Zakari, a national commissioner alleged to have family ties to President Buhari. Though a longstanding staff of the INEC, and acting chairman in 2015, her appointment in December 2018 as head of the national collation center caused an uproar; some saw it as part of a plan to rig elections in Buhari’s favor.
More recently, the CUPP claimed that plans were underway to arrest Okey Ibeanu, the INEC commissioner in charge of operations and logistics, for refusing to support the APC’s plan to sabotage the elections. Yakubu refuted this, but prominent civil society leaders issued a press statement on February 19 claiming that Ibeanu’s home and vehicle had been attacked and the Department of State Security Services had invited him for interrogation. In a party caucus meeting on February 18, APC national chairman Adams Oshiomhole accused INEC of colluding with the opposition People’s Democratic Party. The CUPP has made similar allegations against the APC. Both incidents are an indictment of the state of multiparty politics in Nigeria.
Nigeria’s elections have been postponed before. In 2011, Attahiru Jega, then INEC chairman, postponed the general elections twice: first, for one day due to delays in the delivery of voting materials and later for one week because of other logistical challenges. In 2015, Jega again postponed elections by six weeks on the grounds that the military would be unable to provide security because of the Boko Haram insurgency. Remi Adekoya echoed popular opinion at the time when he questioned the authenticity of the military’s pretext, indicating that Afghanistan, Ukraine, and Iraq had previously held credible elections amid instability. He suggested that the military was interfering with politics either for its own interest or at the behest of then-incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan. Either way, it did not augur well.
Several questions are pertinent at this point. Is the postponement of elections becoming a recurring event in Nigerian politics? Is history repeating itself? What do the latest postponement and this apparent trend mean for the country’s democratic disposition?
Immediate implications were felt most acutely by the Nigerian electorate, many of whom had traveled long distances, including from outside Nigeria, to vote. Also affected were people who had scheduled important family events for the following weekend. Social media was littered with photographs and videos of stranded national service personnel on election duty despite INEC’s claims that it had made adequate provisions for them. There is also the significant economic cost—up to 1.5 billion dollars as estimated by Muda Yusuf, director of the Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry—of the postponement for the country as well as its citizens. Nigerian stocks fell following the announcement, a signal that investors might be apprehensive about the situation. Many Nigerians, including some civil servants, said that they could not afford to return to their homes and come back to their constituencies to vote this weekend, meaning that voter turnout may be lower than it would have been if elections were held on February 16. The postponed elections also have broad, long-term implications for the country’s democracy.
The current state of things has many people wondering why INEC did not more proactively tackle the factors that have held Nigerian elections hostage in the past. As was asked during the stakeholders meeting, why did the commission not take more stringent steps to safeguard its facilities given past experiences with arson? What kind of intelligence sources was INEC working with and why did it not anticipate logistical problems and act earlier on the challenges that are now being blamed for the postponement?
It is too early to tell how the postponement will affect Nigerians’ willingness to vote. What is certain is that these repeated postponements are creating a popular crisis of legitimacy for INEC. This increases the risk of a loss of trust in electoral processes and outcomes in Nigeria, already seen by many as distorted in favor of the rich, corrupt, and powerful.
As things stand, in addition to calls for calm by respected figures, President Buhari’s government can take steps to deescalate tensions. It needs to distance itself from the smear campaign against members of INEC from a particular section of the country and take tough disciplinary measures against anyone propagating or supporting hate speech or arousing ethnic sentiments. It should also desist from inflammatory remarks that could incite violence on election day. Political parties should also call their members to order and remind them that the stability of Nigeria is far more important than winning elections at any cost.
To win back trust in its capacity to steer Nigeria’s democratic process, INEC must ensure that the elections happen as scheduled on February 23 and March 9 and that they run as smoothly as possible. It would be helpful if the electoral body could work with civil society and the media to provide regular, real-time updates to citizens using social (and other accessible) media on how it is addressing the challenges that caused the postponement as well as other preparations.
Credible elections are only one aspect of democracy and do not guarantee good governance. However, having come this far on its democratic trajectory, Nigerians owe themselves the chance to institutionalize elections to the point that postponements become a thing of the distant past.