A man checks his phone at the International conference center in Abuja, Nigeria, Saturday Feb. 16, 2019 , where Nigeria's electoral commission chairman Mahmoud Yakubu arrives to meet with election stakeholders following the sudden postponement of the presidential election until Feb. 23. (Jerome Delay/AP)

The borders were closed. Shops, universities, offices and airports, too. Tens of thousands of soldiers, observers and election officials were deployed around the country. Nigerians spent their savings, and risked their lives in some cases, to return to their hometowns to vote. When they went to sleep on the eve of election day, everything seemed in order for a day that was expected to reaffirm the transition to democracy in Africa’s most populous country.

The reality to which they awoke deflated much of that excitement and risked fanning the flames of unrest. About 3 a.m. Saturday, just five hours before polls were scheduled to open, Nigeria’s election commission announced a postponement of the vote for a week, after apparently realizing that large quantities of voting materials were not in place. 

“Nobody knows what is going on,” said Muhammed Hammidu, a pepper farmer reached by phone in his home village of Pariya, near the northeastern city of Yola. “Rumors are flying like crazy.”

Both of Nigeria’s biggest political parties have condemned the delay, claiming they were unaware of the election commission’s unpreparedness. 

President Muhammadu Buhari said he was “deeply disappointed” and appealed to Nigerians to “refrain from all civil disorder and remain peaceful, patriotic and united to ensure that no force or conspiracy derail our democratic development.”

His main challenger, Atiku Abubakar, also called for calm and said he would join Buhari on Saturday afternoon in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, at a meeting convened by the election commission to address the next steps. 

This year’s election is seen as a chance to shore up Nigeria’s democratic institutions, 20 years after the country formally transitioned to civilian government after decades of military rule. Many here are suspicious of Buhari’s commitment to free and fair elections, and the delay has already elicited a deluge of conspiratorial theories on social media and the popular WhatsApp messaging platform. 

“This dents the credibility of the election, because at best the election commission was incompetent,” said Amaka Anku, a Nigeria analyst at the Eurasia Group. “They couldn’t figure this out until 3 in the morning? Like, there are no excuses. How could they not know? That’s what everyone will be asking.”

Anku and other analysts have said the likelihood of political violence is low in this election as Buhari and Abubakar are Muslims from the same ethnic group, lessening the sense of rivalry that has driven bloodshed in the past. The delay slightly raises those fears, said Anku, but the larger concern is a greatly depressed turnout. 

“People have spent their money to go home this one time to vote and many won’t do the same again, especially with a postponement being announced so suddenly,” she said.

Nigeria’s past two elections have been delayed, though the election commission had assured voters as recently as last week that there was “no room” for postponement this time.