Since 2009, Boko Haram attacks and military counterattacks have created widespread insecurity in Nigeria, killing more than 13 000 people. Since mid-summer, Nigeria has lost a territory by the size of Belgium to the insurgents. The military has proven unable to both prevent and withstand attacks. Soldiers unwilling to meet better equipped insurgents have been sentenced to death in a court martial. Last week, the military realised they need six weeks to conclude “a major military operation” against the insurgency in the northeast.
The military thereby gave the Nigerian electoral commission, INEC, no choice but to postpone the presidential and national assembly elections on 14 February and the governorship and state assembly elections two weeks later. In a letter to the INEC chairman, the security agents declared that the military could not provide security during the elections. Reasons for why this offensive against an insurgency that has lasted for six years coincides with the date of the presidential election was to be held were however not disclosed.
There are indications that the ruling party, PDP, is behind the decision. Only last week, a recording that is said to reveal the military’s involvement in manipulating the Ekiti State elections last summer was made public. This included arresting opposition members as well as preventing voters to access the polls. In the run up to the presidential election it may also be recalled how the military denied the speaker of the House of Representatives access to the National Assembly after defecting to the opposition and an APC office was raided by security agents in November. Less than three weeks ago, the national security advisor to the president called for the elections to be postponed. However, this was not because the security agents were unprepared but because of slow distribution of voters’ cards. INEC, the responsible authority, replied there was no reason for postponement. Hence, it looks like a last resort has been to return to the security argument, first articulated in September by the PDP Senate President.
There are different theories on what PDP benefits from the postponement. As the election has come closer, opinion polls have shown growing dissatisfaction with Jonathan’s government and Buhari has emerged as a possible winner of the election. A postponement would provide an opportunity for Jonathan to recover some lost grounds. As incumbent party, PDP is furthermore believed to benefit from more resources than APC, making an extended campaign phase seem preferable. Another possible advantage is that despite long resistance from Jonathan, neighbouring countries are increasingly present in the combat of Boko Haram and some extra weeks may halt the loss of territory to the insurgents. That would make Jonathan have something to show the many critics that have questioned both his capability and commitment to respond to Boko Haram.
But how a postponement the election is to ease the need for security efforts around the country is however not very clear. The initial responses to the postponement express widespread disappointment and suspicion. The opposition candidate, Muhammadu Buhari, and major actors in civil society have appealed for calm, but the decision triggers major discontent. Ahead of the decision, Nigerians gathered for protests in the streets in Lagos and Abuja. If there would be nationwide demonstrations, there are many places in which there is a high risk for violence.
The special operation that the military commences is scheduled for six weeks. The record of the military’s operations in the north east in the last six years offers few indications that the situation will have improved significantly in these weeks. The question is what will happen if the objectives of the operation are deemed not to have been accomplished at this time. Will the military call for postponement for another month? The end of April is the upper limit according to the constitutional requirements for when elections must hold. Or, even worse, will there be a suggestion for an interim government?
Considering a history of both prolonged military rule and election rigging, it is of uttermost importance that there are no further interferences in the electoral process. Even before the postponement, the Nigerian elections were critical. I stated in a previous blog post that the greatest threat to the Nigerian elections might not be Boko Haram but the Nigerian elite. This appears even more so now.
Henrik Angerbrandt is PhD Candidate in Political Science and researcher at the Nordic Africa Institute. His research concerns ethno-religious conflict in northern Nigeria.