A campaign poster of incumbent presidential candidate Goodluck Jonathan stands torn apart on a street corner in Lagos, Nigeria, on Feb. 14, 2015. (Ahmed Jallanzo/European Pressphoto Agency)

It had been two days since Nigeria’s presidential election was postponed at the behest of the military, and Idayat Hassan’s phone was ringing nonstop.

“It’s like a coup against democracy,” said the director of the Center for Democracy and Development to the ninth or 10th reporter of the day.

“It’s like blackmail,” Hassan said when her phone rang again.

“I’m very worried,” she said to a colleague, and now she hung up the phone, put her head in her hands and sighed. “After 16 years of democracy — this.”

This: For weeks, Africa’s most populous nation appeared to be barreling toward its most fiercely competitive election since it returned to civilian rule in 1999, a race between President Goodluck Jonathan and Muhammadu Buhari, a former military dictator. Hassan and others were training poll watchers. Ballot boxes were being distributed across the country.

A protestor holds a banner as Nigerian security forces look on during a demonstration in Abuja, Nigeria, on Feb. 7, 2015. (Lekan Oyekanmi/AP)

And Nigerians, from elite professionals to street hawkers, were beginning to sense a startling possibility: An election could actually kick the ruling party out.

Except that then it all came to a grinding stop.

And now Nigerians suddenly find themselves in an odd netherworld of anxiety about what will happen next. Will the governing party accept the prospect of relinquishing control over a $500 billion economy? Will Buhari accept defeat if he feels the election has been rigged? Is Nigeria about to settle it all in a spiral of violence that could include everyone from rebels in the oil-rich Delta to the Boko Haram insurgency in the northeast?

“The democratic system is going to be tested — really,” said a civil servant named Edwin, who did not want to give his last name because he works for the government.

After defeating Buhari in the 2011 election, Jonathan had been running neck-and-neck with him this time, with Buhari bolstered by Lagos public relations gurus helping him overcome his image as an autocrat with a bleak human rights record that included ordering the whipping of tardy civil servants. Now cast as a reformer, Buhari was drawing huge crowds, tapping into broad frustration over high unemployment, the army’s feckless efforts against the Boko Haram insurgency and allegations of spectacular corruption in Jonathan’s administration.

In the weeks before the vote, which had been scheduled for Feb. 14, some analysts were saying that Buhari could win.

But Jonathan’s national security adviser, Sambo Dasuki, began arguing that the election should be delayed because too many people had not collected their voter cards. And when the nation’s electoral commission flatly rejected that idea, Jonathan’s national security agency made another argument, saying in a letter signed by Nigeria’s military chiefs that security for the election “could not be guaranteed” because of an impending six-week operation against Boko Haram. On Feb. 7, the electoral commission postponed the vote.

Nigerian opposition candidate Muhammadu Buhari speaks during an interview in Abuja on Feb. 8, 2015. Buhari called for calm and cautioned against any violence following the postponement of elections. (Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters)

Jonathan has pledged that there will be no further delay beyond March 28, the new date set for the election, and that the postponement will give the military time to “clean up” three northeastern states where Boko Haram has displaced an estimated 1 million people and killed thousands. In recent months the Islamist insurgency has expanded its campaign,launching attacks inside neighboring Chad, Cameroon and Niger.

Jonathan’s critics, however, question the last-minute timing of the military operation and the notion that Nigeria’s profoundly corrupt and undisciplined military could possibly accomplish in six weeks what it has failed to do in six years.

The true reason for the delay, they say, is to give the governing party time to mobilize its vast patronage network in the service of rigging the election.

“It’s a facade,” said Festus Keyamo, a well-known human rights lawyer here. “The question I’d ask is: Why would the ruling party want a postponement of the election? The obvious answer is that it did not have a clear indication it would win. No one should be deceived that they want free and fair elections.”

Multiple fault lines

On television in recent days, public service announcements with cheery music urged Nigerians not to kill one another if their candidate loses. Newspapers were full of stories about alleged rigging plots. Real estate agents said deals are being postponed because people are unsure whether Nigeria is going to fall apart in the near future.

“People think maybe there will be war,” said Richard Adewumi, 41, an agent. “Personally, I don’t think it will happen, because the government does not want chaos. But the government in power has failed us. We need change.”

In Idayat Hassan’s office, where books on democratic process line the shelves, employees were role-playing possible nightmare scenarios.

“They could try to postpone again, and there could be a constitutional crisis,” began Hassan, explaining that another delay would violate election laws.

She wondered whether the government might try to impose some kind of broader state of emergency that could suspend elections indefinitely.

And she considered the bleakest scenario of all, in which another delay, or allegations of cheating, ignites an explosion of violence along the lines that have often divided Nigerians — not just tribal but also north-south, ­Christian-Muslim, rich-poor, differences that have all played out in the campaigns, although not as predictably as in the past.

For example, Buhari, a Muslim from the north, chose an evangelical Christian running mate and is expected to draw a large number of Christian voters in the south. Jonathan, a Christian from the south who has run ads saying his reelection is “God’s will,” is expected to win pockets of votes in the north.

At a voter card center in a dusty Abuja schoolyard, the crowd was thin as the fragile machinery of democracy cranked on.

“Before the postponement, we were giving out maybe 400 cards a day, but now it’s dropped drastically,” said Kabir Bala, who was supervising the operation from a white plastic chair under a sprawling tree. “Now it’s maybe 50.”

Six voters were standing around a folding table in the shade as two election workers searched for their names in thick registration rolls. Many pages were ripped, and when a stiff wind blew, they flew off the table. There went Khadija, there went Yusafa, their sun-faded photos now resting in the dirt.

“I’m trying to find Atuikoye,” said one of the workers, searching the rolls for the name, then digging through plastic sacks for the card, and finally handing it to Lazarus Atuikoye, who inked his thumb and pressed it beside his name.

Observing the scene, Ibrahim Baba, 40, an investment consultant, wondered whether such a system could withstand an attempt by the ruling party to rig the vote, with its control over the military, its command of billions of dollars and a vast infrastructure of party operatives who will be involved in vote counting.

“I’m worried,” he said. “The ruling party will control this election.”

A teacher named Frank was waiting for his card.

“The government will decide,” he said drearily. “We just dance to their music.”

An air of uncertainty

Others, though, mostly Jonathan supporters, welcomed the delay.

“Because,” said Nneka Igwe, 34, a businesswoman, lowering her voice, “I believe that most — I don’t want to use the word ‘Christians’ — but I know many Christians who have not gotten their cards, and it worries me because that will favor northerners more.”

Since the postponement, both Buhari and Jonathan have gone relatively quiet, although campaigning has resumed in the past few days.

Jonathan has appeared on television clarifying that he does not think it is necessary for Boko Haram to be “wiped out” for an election to be held, only for the military to retake certain towns in the northeast.

A Buhari campaign spokesman, Lai Mohammed, said the candidate decided not to call his supporters to protest in the streets because he was sure Jonathan would accuse him of causing chaos.

Instead, he said, Buhari has been quietly trying to win the support of key military chiefs who might be concerned that a new government might charge them with corruption.

“They have a morbid fear of what will happen to them if Buhari wins the elections,” he said. “We are ready to give them a soft landing.”

Mohammed said the opposition is increasingly skeptical that an election will take place in the near future.

“What is clear is that the electoral commission is no longer in control of the election,” he said.

Inside the electoral commission in recent days, the mood was bleak, even as preparations for a March 28 vote carried on, said people who work there.

“Even now, we are not even too sure the election will go, because we don’t know what the government is going to come up with,” said an official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media. “Nobody knows what they are plotting.”

He said that ruling party operatives have been putting “tremendous pressure” on the election commission chairman, Attahiru Jega, a widely respected academic, to resign.

“They are trying anything because they are desperate,” the official said. “At a certain point, you feel your effort may not be worthwhile. But we are trying our best.”