Nigeria: Election Delay Shock Elicits Range of Reactions

News and Press Release
Originally published

Abuja — As Nigeria's attempt to hold parliamentary elections—the first round of a three-stage vote set for this month in Africa's most populous nation—floundered this weekend, there was no shortage of opinions from would-be voters across the country as they reacted to vote.

From the streets of Lagos, in the taxis of Abuja, and from the headlines of Nigeria's vibrant press, here's a snapshot of the widely ranging reactions of Nigerians to Saturday's "false start" vote - which was initially pushed back by the elections commission to Monday, and later moved to Saturday, shifting the entire timeline of this month's voting.

"National Shame," read one morning headline from the Sunday Sun. "INEC Flops", referring to the apparent failure of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to deliver critical ballot materials to polling stations ahead of the vote.

Many Nigerians were shocked when the respected chairman of the commission, Professor Attahiru Jega, announced on live television that he was postponing the National Assembly elections after they were already under way, particularly because Jega had declared on Friday, on the eve of the vote, that his commission was completely ready.

"I never in my wildest dreams imagined a postponement," said Jude Ado of the Open Society Institute in Abuja, who is part of an innovative domestic monitoring project called the Election Situation Room.

Ado noted that there are several schools of "thought and legend" about what went wrong within the commission, but one gradually emerging theory is that the seemingly chaotic series of events over the weekend were a "calculated plan" to oust Chairman Jega, whose sheer integrity poses a threat to Nigeria's established political order, which is maintained by the elite no matter the human or economic cost to everyday, largely impoverished citizens.

Ado said that "no one saw [the delay] coming", but said civil society groups had consistently noted in their statements that logistical problems could hamper a credible vote.

Clement Nwankwo, who heads the Election Situation Room, said his civil society coalition was strongly opposed to the position of some other groups calling for the chairman's resignation. He said that would play into the hands of the country's corrupt elite, because a "more pliant" head of the electoral commission is just what they want to block future reforms of the notoriously corrupt body.

"I think it is better to delay than to have a bad election," said a street vendor selling cigarettes and cellphone air time in Lagos who had witnessed the fraudulent and violent polls of 2007 and hoped this year's vote could be a change for the better.

Another activist in Abuja said that the decision was no doubt "disappointing and potentially destabilizing", but if the vote had gone ahead on Saturday, many voters would have been denied the right to vote, given that ballot papers and tally sheets were missing from polling stations across the country.

Writing to a group of activist and domestic elections monitors on a listserv, one man opined that "We have to give INEC another chance while we organize instead of crying over spilt milk. What we do now to make things better is better than the blame now… All hands must be on deck to make sure Nigeria gets it right in this election because there are many obvious local and international implications and Nigeria's image."

Many Nigerians seem willing to give the commission another chance, but others point their finger squarely at the chairman for not being better informed about a critical element of the voting process—the delivery of materials. "Jega had all the time to prepare for this election, this is total ignorant on his part," said a Nigerian who gave the name "Endurance" on a comments section of a local newspaper article.

With the postponement now further extended to Saturday, thereby pushing back the entire timeline for the month's polls, Nigerian voters are in wait-and-see mode. Will they be disappointed again when they turn out to the polls on Saturday?

A taxi driver in Abuja reasoned that voter turnout could be high this coming Saturday because the longer delay gives the politicians time to "mobilize their people" to make them go to the polls and cast votes along the party lines. "Banks are closed on Sunday so the politicians couldn't go get more money to pay their people," he reasoned, noting that now the country's elite will have time to get out the vote once more for Saturday, by hook or by crook.