This article explores the implications—for democracy, peace, and security—of the postponement of Nigeria’s 2019 elections, initially set for February 16 (presidential and national assembly) and March 2 (governor and state assembly). Both elections have now been rescheduled to February 23 and March 11, respectively. Nigeria’s electoral history is replete with poll postponements since the military era. For example, under Ibrahim Babangida, Nigeria’s military president from 1985 to 1993, multiple elections were postponed in 1991 and 1992. The annulment of the June 1993 elections by Babangida in June 1993 led to a series of events that culminated in the collapse of Nigeria’s third republic.
Under Attahiru Jega, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) postponed elections twice—in 2011 and 2015. In 2011, the reason given was the late deployment of electoral materials. As a result, the national assembly elections scheduled for April 2 were postponed by two days, after voting had already commenced in some states. They were subsequently delayed again, which led to presidential and state elections also being pushed back.
In 2015, INEC delayed elections by six weeks from the originally scheduled date of February 14 citing security challenges posed by the Boko Haram insurgency. The postponement attracted widespread outrage, especially from Muhammadu Buhari, an opposition candidate at the time, who alleged that it was a ploy to rig the elections in favor of then President Goodluck Jonathan and his People’s Democratic Party (PDP). Although the postponement of elections in the past appeared to threaten Nigeria’s democracy and electoral institutions, the country overcame these challenges.
Responses to the Postponement of the 2019 Elections
Although section 26(1) of Nigeria’s 2015 Electoral (Amendment) Act provides for the postponement of elections, this is on the grounds of natural disasters, war, and other emergencies. Justifying the postponement of the 2019 general elections on the basis of logistical difficulties—as a kind of national emergency provided for in the Electoral Act—is a hard-sell to Nigerian voters.
Going by the reactions of most commentators, both local and international, the delay has put the integrity of INEC under greater scrutiny. Critics rightly argue that 36 months is sufficient time to prepare for the elections. Although the All Progressives Congress (APC) led by its candidate, President Mohammad Buhari, has condemned INEC for the postponement, the PDP and its presidential candidate, Atiku Abubakar, has accused the ruling APC of instigating the delay to disenfranchise the electorate. Similar concerns have been expressed by many Nigerians who have reacted with disappointment, thereby casting doubt on the results that would come from the rescheduled elections. Political parties across the divide, particularly the two dominant parties (APC and PDP), have accused INEC of using the postponement to manipulate the electoral process for the benefit of their opponents. However, none of the parties have been able to muster credible evidence to prove any of their allegations against INEC.
Implications for Democracy, Peace, and Security
The rescheduling of the polls may result in voter fatigue and apathy, especially among those who traveled long distances within and to Nigeria to cast their votes. Such apathy may undermine INECs credibility and Nigeria’s democracy. Nigeria has a history of poor voter turnout during past elections. In the 2015 presidential elections, which were delayed by six weeks, only 33.5 percent of eligible voters turned up to cast their ballots. The electorate’s response to the postponement of the 2019 elections may be similar as people become disenchanted with the electoral process, a situation that does not bode well for the development of Nigeria’s democracy.
In spite of their initial misgivings, it is unclear how the postponement will affect the activities of international observers from the United Nations, Commonwealth, European Union, African Union, Economic Community of West African States, as well as the United States’ International Republican Institute and National Democratic Institute. It could lead them to scale down their operation by deploying fewer observers during the rescheduled elections. Also, some of them may cut short their stay in Nigeria to travel to Senegal, which is scheduled to hold its presidential elections on Sunday, February 24. Either way, the rescheduled polls will have implications for the quality of the election observation in Nigeria and the international reputation of the country’s democratic project.
The already worrying incidences of pre-election violence in many states, as well as resurgent activities of Boko Haram, particularly in Borno and Yobe states, are being further complicated by accusations and counter-accusations by the two main political parties—APC and PDP—who both accuse INEC of incompetence and partiality. Verbal attacks on INEC and its top officials are contributing to escalating tensions and undermining the credibility of the electoral body.
Hopefully, the politicians and their parties will allow better judgment to prevail and de-escalate the situation to prevent election and post-election violence, and a possible breach of the peace on a large scale. The postponement has unavoidably raised the stakes for winning these elections. Nigerians hope the elections will be free and fair and that the players will use the courts to resolve any grievances arising from the outcomes and give democracy another chance to thrive. This will help prepare the ground for holding the next elections on schedule in 2023.