ABUJA: Nigeria’s knife-edge presidential elections were thrown into increasing doubt on Saturday, as the country’s electoral commission met to discuss a minimum six-week delay to voting.
Lawmakers who attended the meeting at the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) said the talks about postponement came after a recommendation from national security advisor Sambo Dasuki.
PDM party chairman Bashir Yusuf said Dasuki had told INEC that operations against Boko Haram militants meant the military “will be unable to provide adequate security” for the February 14 vote.
“On the basis of that the national security advisor has requested INEC to consider rescheduling the elections for at least a period of six weeks,” the opposition lawmaker added.
INEC chairman Attahiru Jega has been under mounting pressure to delay polling because of increased fears about the distribution of permanent voter cards to 68.8 million registered electors.
But he has repeatedly ruled out a date change, even after the issue was raised this week at a meeting of the powerful council of states, comprising the current and former presidents.
The electoral body has scheduled a news conference for later on Saturday.
The national secretary of President Goodluck Jonathan’s ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Wale Oladipo, said they would “abide by any decision taken by INEC”.
But Yusuf said that some parties present at the meeting, including the main opposition All Progressives Congress (APC), were against any delay.
Jonathan, battered by criticism over his handling of the Boko Haram crisis, corruption and the economy, is seeking a second four-year term of office.
But seven days out, the result is seen as too close to call, even if the APC’s Muhammadu Buhari, a former military ruler, has predicted he will secure a “landslide victory”.
Dawn Dimowo, from the africapractice consulting firm, said on Friday that any delay “could lead to enhanced stability” and allow logistical problems with voting to be resolved.
But it could also prompt a violent reaction from angered opposition supporters, who are hoping to inflict a defeat on the PDP for the first time in 16 years.
In 2011, some 1,000 people were killed in post-poll rioting.
This year Boko Haram’s control of territory in three northeastern states has made voting impossible for hundreds of thousands of people.
Since the turn of the year, the militant group has increased the intensity of its campaign, in part to further undermine the democratic process, which it views as un-Islamic.
The APC has already said the overall result will be in doubt if displaced people in its northeastern stronghold are disenfranchised.
Commentators have also raised the prospect of a legal challenge from either side after the result and even a run-off, which would also likely inflame tensions.
Ryan Cummings, chief Africa analyst at Red24 risk consultants, said it would be surprising if the six-year Boko Haram insurgency was used as a reason for postponement rather than voter card problems.
He said it was “extremely optimistic” to suggest that the military coalition of Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon would make significant gains against the militants before the end of March.
“To date, Boko Haram is claimed to control (partially or fully) 20 out of the 27 local government areas in Borno State, and two each in Yobe and Adawama,” he said in an email exchange.
“As far as I know, Gamboru has been the only major town to be secured by Nigeria and its international partners since the launch of multi-national counterinsurgency operations.
“To dislodge Boko Haram from all of these areas in a period of six weeks would be an unprecedented feat.
“But even if achieved, securing liberated territories would be a task in its own, particularly if multinational forces withdraw their presence from Nigeria.”
The election, scheduled to be held simultaneously with polling for a new national assembly, involves 14 presidential hopefuls, although Jonathan and Buhari are the only realistic contenders.
The PDP, which has been in power since Nigeria returned to civilian rule in 1999, has mounted a series of personal attacks on Buhari’s health, religious views and even his eligibility to stand.
He and his party have dismissed the smears as a diversionary tactic intended to deflect attention away from scrutiny of the government’s record in power.
The PDP meanwhile has played up its purported achievements in office, from overseeing Nigeria’s emergence as Africa’s leading economy to attempts to decrease reliance on oil revenue.