'Hell to Pay' if Nigerian Election is Delayed Again

Muhammadu Buhari
Opposition presidential candidate Muhammadu Buhari, of the All Progressives Congress (APC), speaks during the Nigeria Labour Congress in Abuja, February 9, 2015. Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters

The security reasons given for the postponement of the Nigerian presidential election are "flimsy", according to Washington's former top diplomat to the country.

The vote - originally set for 14 February - was delayed by the electoral commission to 28 March on the advice of the country's security services. They said that a six-week military operation against the radical Islamist group Boko Haram, which is to be carried out in the north east of the country, was scheduled to begin on the same day as the election, leaving an inadequate security presence for voters in the rest of the country.

John Campbell, former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria and editor of the Nigeria Security Tracker - a tool which monitors violence in the west African country - points out that the decision will allow the ruling party more time to counter the opposition's momentum.

"Postponing elections - in light of the excuse for postponing them, which in my view is pretty flimsy - sets back the democratic process," said Campbell. "It buys [the ruling party] more time, they can try to regain momentum, on and on it goes."

A number of Nigerian commentators have also criticised the decision to postpone the vote, expressing their anger that the security forces had become involved in the democratic process.

The election will pit incumbent president Goodluck Jonathan's People's Democratic Party (PDP) against ex-general Muhammadu Buhari's All Progessives Congress (APC). The latter party has accused the former of manoeuvring the election delay to their benefit.

Nigerian lawyer in Lagos, Femi Falana, wrote an article in which he described the decision as "a coup against the constitution by the security chiefs" who he believed had committed "treason".

"As far as the law is concerned, the armed forces have nothing to do with the elections," he added.

Boko Haram have waged an insurgency against authorities in the west African nation's northern regions since 2009. Ryan Cummings, chief security analyst for Africa at security consultancy Red24, said that the opposition leader Buhari has capitalised on the "lacklustre response by the Nigerian government" towards the radical group during Jonathan's term and so the postponement may reverse Bhari's momentum.

"We can't deny that the postponement does not work in favour of the PDP. By extending the vote by six weeks and with the possibility that the government could score a decisive victory or at least make some significant inroads against Boko Haram, an issue which may have debilitated the PDP at the polls, could actually give them momentum going into them," he adds.

However, the PDP have countered any suggestion that the delay will influence the final outcome of the poll. "We're talking about just a six-week postponement to ensure the election is done credibly. There's no way it can affect the outcome of the election," PDP spokesman Olisa Metuh told Reuters. "It confers no advantage whatsoever on the PDP."

The national security adviser, Col. Sambo Dasuki has said that the vote on 28 March could be postponed again if it has to be if further security concerns are present. Campbell argues that the idea the Nigerian military can in six weeks defeat an insurgency that has waged for years "stretches credulity".

He also warned of the there is a possibility of unrest across Nigeria if there is a further delay to the vote next month. "If things remain calm now they would not necessarily remain calm in the face of another postponement. I think there would be hell to pay," he asserted.

Boko Haram's leader Abubakar Shekau today released a new video in which he pledged to defeat the regional coalition currently battling their insurgency. Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, Niger and France are working in conjunction to tackle the group as it continues to carry out cross-border attacks in the towns of Niger and Cameroon.

"Your alliance will not achieve anything. Amass all your weapons and face us. We welcome you," he said. "We never rose up to fight Africa. We rose up to fight the world."

The Council on Foreign Relations' Nigeria Security Tracker estimates that the terror group have killed up to 10,404 people since January 2014. In its four-year-long insurgency, which seeks to create an Islamic caliphate in similar vein to that of the Islamic State, the group have captured territory equal to the size of Belgium.

The Hunt for Boko Haram, an in-depth ebook on the terrorists tearing Nigeria apart by Alex Perry, is available now from Newsweek Insights.