Boko Haram’s latest victim may just have been Nigeria’s national election.
At least on first glance, it would appear that way. On Saturday evening, Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) announced its decision to postpone Nigeria’s national election scheduled for February 14th. These elections were widely expected to be Nigeria’s closest electoral contest yet, between the increasingly unpopular Goodluck Jonathan’s People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and retired General Muhammadu Buhari of the All Progressive’s Congress (APC). These elections represent a serious challenge to Jonathan’s PDP, which has won every election since 1999.
The reason for the delay? According to INEC, Nigeria’s security services say they need at least six weeks to launch a major offensive against the Boko Haram insurgency in the northern part of the country, that they could not guarantee security for the February elections. The new date for the presidential elections is set for March 28th. State elections will be held on April 11th.
Boko Haram has been rampaging since 2009, killing tens of thousands of civilians (5,000 in 2014 alone), razing towns, seizing Nigerian territory, threatening and attacking other countries, but now, with less than a week to go before the presidential elections, the Nigerian military promises to rout the scourge by late March? This is the same military that falsely claimed 200 schoolgirls were released after being kidnapped by Boko Haram. This is the same military that claimed a ceasefire with Boko Haram, only to have Boko Haram deny any such deal. This army reportedly sends soldiers to combat Boko Haram without adequate weapons, and has had soldiers flee in the face of Boko Haram’s assaults. This military has been guilty of committing human rights abuses against Nigerian citizens in its fight against terrorism. These are the same security forces whose leader said they didn’t need the African Union or the United Nations to help counter the Islamist insurgency.
But after years of Boko Haram’s carnage, what will the army do in six weeks that they couldn’t do in five years and with a $5 billion security budget? Where was this urgency hiding for the past six years? And why escalate tensions and anger Nigerians who have been eagerly waiting to cast ballots by making this announcement with only a week to go before the polls?
Hours before the official announcement, Nigerians were protesting in the streets of Abuja. The United States has pleaded repeatedly with Nigeria to not delay the elections. Secretary of State John Kerry even paid Jonathan and Buhari a visit in Lagos last month to urge for peaceful and timely elections. As the Globe and Mail noted, President Jonathan declined to say during Kerry’s visit whether the elections would be held on February 14th, but said the May 29th date for the transfer of power is “sacrosanct”.
In a press statement, Kerry noted that the U.S. is “deeply disappointed by the decision to postpone the elections” and that “political interference with the Independent National Electoral Commission is unacceptable, and it is critical that the government not use security concerns as a pretext for impeding the democratic process.”
For months, not surprisingly, members of incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan’s party have publicly been calling for a delay in the polls, but for different reasons, at least publicly. The national security advisor to Goodluck Jonathan, Sambo Dasuki, said last month that elections should be postponed because of what he has cited INEC’s failure to distribute election voting cards to 30 million people. (This is the first election where voting cards are necessary for Nigeria’s 68 million voters to cast ballots.) As The Globe and Mail reported, the idea of a six-week delay had been floated by government officials even last month. Members of Buhari’s opposition party have stated they would not accept any delays in polls. Indeed, it is not surprising that a decision to push back the elections in the name of security, especially under Jonathan who has been seen to be lackadaisical in his approach to Boko Haram, would be perceived as an attempt to sway political momentum in his party’s favor rather than combating the terrorism threat.
But by citing the military’s demands as the primary reason for the delay, INEC has upped the stakes in what was already perhaps the most heated election in Nigeria’s recent history, and one where few Nigerians have faith in this year’s electoral process, according to a Gallup poll. Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation and largest economy, has bet its own elections on the military, and one that that has given few signs to date that it can be trusted to adequately counter Boko Haram’s violence and protect Nigerian civilians. Unfortunately, perhaps this is a symptom of what happens when military is given more logistical influence over elections than INEC itself, and perhaps an intractable lingering political effect of Nigeria’s history under the rule of military regimes for decades before the return to democracy in 1999. It is hard not to feel that INEC has given the security forces more power over Nigeria’s political affairs than they deserve.
What happens if the new election date approaches in March and Boko Haram is still a threat? Will there be another call for a postponement? Will the army become more transparent about its efforts? What if the Nigerian military claims it cannot ensure election safety in March? How will Nigeria, a country whose economy has been rocked by the drop in oil prices, fund these ramped up efforts and ensure credible and peaceful elections? Will the May 29th date for the transfer of presidential power still hold firm? Nigerian citizens, Africa, and the world are entitled to concrete answers to these questions.
In the meantime, it is up to anxious Nigerians on both political sides to remain peaceful over the next six weeks. As I have written before, fair and credible Nigerian elections provide the best way for Nigerians to choose whether to hold their leaders accountable for the government’s failures on Boko Haram. Though the Nigerian constitution allows for the elections to be postponed, this decision still amounts to a temporary disenfranchisement of tens of millions of Nigerian voters based on ‘hopes” and promises from the military. It is hard not to see this latest decision, as anything but an needlessly risky gamble, with Nigeria’s democracy at stake.