Powder-keg Nigeria delays ballot

The Sunday Times

THE battle for the Nigerian presidency threatened to turn violent yesterday after reports that elections scheduled to take place this Saturday could be delayed by six weeks.

President Goodluck Jonathan is believed to have put pressure on the electoral commission to delay the poll. The move was ostensibly to give the military enough time to secure parts of the country that are under attack from Boko Haram, a terrorist organisation that has wrought havoc in the northeast, killing thousands of people and driving 1.5m from their homes.

Jonathan’s party, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), has said the Islamist militants could prevent millions of people from voting unless they are pushed back.

A new force made up of troops from Nigeria, Cameroon and Chad began pounding insurgent strongholds last week to try to recapture territory under the Islamists’ control. The Nigerian army has said it needs more time for the offensive, which involves French warplanes, to succeed.

Military commanders are believed to have warned the head of the electoral commission that no soldiers will be available to provide security if the election takes place as planned on Saturday.

The ruling party also says a six-week delay, backed by the country’s security chief, will give election officials more time to deliver more than 20m voter cards that have yet to reach parts of the country.

The decision to delay the polls has enraged Jonathan’s opponents, however. They accuse the president — a Christian from the oil-rich Niger Delta in the south of the country — of trying to buy more time because he fears he will lose the election if it takes place as scheduled.

They say the delay is deliberately designed to damage his rival, Muhammadu Buhari, a retired major-general from the Muslim north who ran Nigeria for 20 months in the mid-1980s, by drying up his campaign funds.

Opinion polls put both candidates neck and neck on 42% , making it likely that the election — when it finally happens — will be the closest since the end of military rule in 1999.

It could also be one of the bloodiest, with Boko Haram continuing its rampage across the northeast and threats of a resurgence of separatism in the Niger Delta if Jonathan is defeated. Hundreds of people were killed in rioting after the last vote, in 2011.

“There is a very high risk of violence, of attacks against northerners in the delta or against southerners living in the far north,” said Nnamdi Obasi, a Nigeria-based analyst with the International Crisis Group. “You could end up with a large number of people killed and a massive population exodus from both regions.”

Victory for Jonathan, who has ruled Africa’s most populous nation since 2010, will enrage many northerners angry with the president for his failure to push back Boko Haram. On Monday a female suicide bomber blew herself up minutes after he finished a campaign rally in the northern city of Gombe, which has come under attack from the Islamists.

The army’s failure to rescue more than 200 girls kidnapped by Boko Haram from a school almost 10 months ago is held up as proof of the president’s bungling incompetence.

However, victory for Buhari will equally incense southerners, who accuse him of wanting to split the country along ethnic lines — a fear stoked by Jonathan’s supporters, who claim Buhari and his party are secretly backing the Islamists, an allegation he has consistently denied.

It is precisely because of Boko Haram’s bloody success on the battlefield that Buhari stands a real chance of ousting Jonathan and his PDP, which has run Nigeria since civilian rule began.

Despite efforts by Jonathan’s supporters to portray his rival as a fundamentalist bent on spreading sharia (Islamic law), Buhari appeals to voters, who believe his military track record makes him the only person strong enough to crush the insurgents.Buhari’s supporters believe he will also weed out corruption in the armed forces, seen as the main reason for the Nigerian military’s failure to tackle the Islamist militants.

Yet his past is also his greatest weakness. Those who remember his rule say his “war against indiscipline” was carried out to “sadistic levels”. Soldiers whipped commuters for failing to form orderly queues at bus stops, while civil servants were forced to do to star jumps if they turned up late for work.

Although viewed as tough on corruption — which critics claim has flourished during Jonathan’s rule — Buhari is said to show little respect for the law. During his brief time in power a Nigerian politician was kidnapped in London, drugged and bundled into a shipping crate labelled “diplomatic baggage” at Stansted. There were claims Buhari’s government and two agents from Israel’s foreign intelligence agency, Mossad, were involved, but both countries denied this.

There are fears that a delay to the ballot will further spark violence: civil society groups say it could throw the election’s credibility into doubt, and fuel resentment among Buhari’s supporters should he lose.

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