Campaign posters of Nigeria’s main opposition presidential candidate, Mohammadu Buhari, are placed on the side of an overhead bridge in Lagos, Nigeria. (Ahmed Jallanzo/EPA)

The delay of Nigeria’s elections, originally scheduled for Feb. 14 and now set for March 28, did not exactly come as a surprise for Nigeria watchers. The Associated Press reported nearly 12 hours before the announcements that the elections would be pushed back six weeks, referencing an anonymous source. Princeton Lyman, in Foreign Policy, advocated for a delay of the elections due to the difficulties posed by the “nearly one million people displaced or controlled by Boko Haram.” Others, including National Security Adviser Sambo Dasuki, noted that the low levels of voter ID card distribution would hamper the election’s credibility. In particular, the uneven distribution of voter ID cards among Nigeria’s states portended political violence in a country with a short history of democracy and a long history of inter-regional distrust.

And yet, when Attahiru Jega, the chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission, arrived at the press conference to announce the delays, after a delay of more than five hours, voter ID distribution and IDPs were not on the agenda.

Instead, Jega asserted that  “INEC is capable of delivering free and fair elections…. However… there are other factors to conduct while planning elections, like security.” Reflecting the influence of Nigerian military leaders, Jega concluded that “it would be unconscionable to have elections without adequate security” and announced that “the security agencies reiterated [to him in private meetings] that they will be concentrating their attention to the insurgency and may not be able to play [their] traditional role in providing security during the elections.” The six-week delay announced by Jega was justified as a means of allowing the Nigerian military to secure the country’s northeast by “putting down” the Boko Haram insurgency.

Putting aside the immense willing suspension of disbelief it would take to conclude that, having struggled to adequately respond to the Boko Haram insurgency since its founding in 2002 and having contributed to its lethal escalation in 2009, the Nigerian military will be able to contain the militants in six weeks, the government’s postponement of the elections reflects the sort of governmental mismanagement and political games that have created fertile territory in Nigeria for the rise of armed insurgencies. When AP broke the news of the potential delay, social media erupted with conspiracy theories as to how the delay would benefit incumbent President Goodluck Jonathon and his party, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). It is unclear how much truth there is to these claims, but the very existence of these political rumors suggests a widespread frustration with the Nigerian government that does not bode well for Nigerian democracy. During the deliberations, a number of protestors demanded that the elections be held Feb. 14.  Last month, a poll by Gallup revealed that, of those who were supportive of  Jonathon, “only 13% expressed confidence in the honesty of elections,” trust among those who were unsupportive of the incumbent came in at a paltry eight percent. The delay of the elections can only serve to reduce citizen confidence in the elections.

In the past, Nigerian elections have been fraught with allegations of fraud and bouts of political violence. The delay threatens to enflame tensions between rival political groups, each motivated by their interpretation of how the delay will benefit their opponent. Instead of providing the military with the opportunity to address the instability stemming from the Boko Haram insurgency, delaying the elections may serve to worsen the national security situation. The Nigerian Social Violence Project has already observed a significant increase in political violence in recent months; in the fourth quarter of 2014, there were 42 recorded political deaths in the country, compared to eight in the third quarter. While these levels of political violence remain low, the recent uptick alludes to the tensions surrounding the 2015 elections, which have been billed as the closest in the history of Nigeria’s democratic fourth republic.

In addition to marginalizing Nigerians throughout the country and reducing confidence in electoral democracy in the country, the delay is unlikely to be sufficient for the Nigerian military to restore stability in northeastern Nigeria. Though the past can’t necessarily predict the future, it seems safe to assume that, having failed to contain the insurgency despite multiple extensions of a state of emergency in Borno, Yobe and Adamawa States, Nigerian forces will not succeed in subduing a force of 4,000 to 6,000 militants in six weeks. On February 17, Boko Haram released a video  condemning the actions of Chad, Niger, and Cameroon and vowing to disrupt the elections; while Shekau frequently rambled, this should not prevent observers from recognizing the insurgency’s capacity to follow through on this promise. 

Those who suggest that the announced AU regional planned force of 8,700 will expedite the process of ending the insurgency overlook the fact that the deployment of regional troops appears to have expanded Boko Haram’s territorial focus. Further, Nigerian military officials appear uneasy about the implications of foreign military forces conducting operations on Nigerian soil; Maj. Gen. Olukolade stated “The Nigerian armed forces and security agencies are capable of handling the security situation in Nigeria…” and added that “we are a sovereign nation… indeed we are concerned for our sovereignty as a state and that we will defend at all cost[s].”  Given the history of border conflicts between Chad and Nigeria in the 1980s over territory currently under Boko Haram control, partnership between the countries is likely to be uneasy.

Before the delay was announced, a press statement from the State Department declared “The United States … looks to Nigeria to hold these elections on time. We call on the national police, the Nigerian military, and all security force personnel to provide security in an impartial manner so that citizens across the country are able to exercise their civic duty safely and without undue delay.”

Any postponement of Nigerian elections would be a troubling sign for the state of Nigerian democracy. To delay elections on the basis of a long-standing crisis – one that is unlikely to be resolved in the short-term – suggests an uncertain and unstable future for Nigeria’s Fourth Republic.

Correction: This post has been updated after African leaders approved an AU force size larger than the 7,500 initially planned.