Omoyele Sowore (275779)
Credit: Contributed

(GIN)—Shocked, but not surprised can best describe the majority response of Nigerian voters waiting for the opening of the presidential election polls last Friday night/Saturday morning, Feb. 16.

After years of planning, conscientious voters were told, “Late breaking news: Voting for the nation’s next president has been called off for today. Thanks for coming. Stay tuned for further announcements.”

Not the kind of message one would expect from the superpower of Africa.

But indeed, five hours before polls were set to open Saturday, Nigeria’s electoral commission announced that unspecified “challenges” had forced a “difficult decision.” Voting materials had not been delivered to all parts of the country and the much-anticipated elections would be postponed for a week.

“This was a difficult decision but necessary for the successful delivery of the elections and the consolidation of our democracy,” said Electoral Commission Chair Mahmood Yakubu, speaking to reporters late Friday night.

The new date of Friday, Feb. 23, 2019, was announced soon after the stop-the-presses stunner.

President Muhammadu Buhari, 76, having just left the mosque in his hometown Daura, wanted no part of the drama and was not going to appear as if he had been forewarned. “I have given the military and the police instructions to be ruthless. We are not going to be blamed for the bad conduct of the election,” he told senior members of his All Progressives Congress.

Anyone trying to intimidate voters or interfere with the voting “will do it at the expense of his own life,” he warned. His comments caused shockwaves across the country.

The opposition People’s Democratic Party suggested that Buhari, a former military ruler who was later elected president in 2015, was behind the postponement in order to hold on to power.

The PDP criticized the president’s comments. “President Buhari’s threat to the lives of Nigerians…is a direct call for jungle justice,” the party said in a statement.

PDP Presidential Candidate Atiku Abubakar, 72, said of Buhari, “It’s quite shocking for any head of state to utter such words in a democracy, and we will not accept it from General Buhari in this country.”

The former vice-president said, “He’s never been a democrat…He’s more of a power-monger than a democrat.”

Meanwhile, Mahmood Yakubu, chairperson of the Independent National Electoral Commission, asked for the two candidates to cool down the rhetoric, urging, “Please speak in a manner that does not contribute to heating the polity and the political atmosphere.”

Buhari faces a tight contest against the PDP’s Atiku to lead a country that has Africa’s largest economy and is its top oil producer, but is plagued by corruption and uneven wealth distribution causing wide gaps between rich and poor.

There are dozens of candidates vying for the top spot; APC and PDP are the main two parties.

The Amsterdam News spoke with Africa Action Congress candidate Omoyele Sowore, 48, a few minutes after the news broke. He said it was a shock, but folks were adjusting to the new change.

Later that day he said that everyone is “very disappointed, but cool, calm and collected, knowing that this is a delay that cannot postpone their judgement.”

On Friday, planes leaving Abuja airport were full of people going home in order to take part in the election. On Election Day, travel is restricted, and most people walk to polling stations to cast their votes.

Elections for the state governors, due to be held March 2, were also delayed by a week. The cost of the election, already expected to be 242 billion naira ($670 million), will now increase.

Asked what the mood is, Sowore said it has happened before, “People are disappointed but in the last three elections there have been delays, so people are not surprised.”

For Fisayo Soyombo, the biggest threat to the voting exercise is a low turnout. Of the 14.28 million new voters who registered for this year’s election, only 76 percent picked up their voter cards as of the Feb. 9 deadline. Many Nigerians who live far from where they are registered will also find it a challenge as the current law does not allow them to vote at any other location.

“But most importantly, Nigeria’s election dates need sacrosanctity,” Soyombo said. “In the U.S., for example, Election Day is set by law to the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. So the next U.S. presidential vote is already scheduled for Nov. 3, 2020, granting enough time for preparation and ensuring voter confidence in the electoral system. It would be great if Nigeria achieves that by 2023.”

While people gear up for the new Election Day, Nigerians are still asking why INEC rescheduled the election.

Few seem to be buying the scenario that it was the lack of election materials in a couple of states.

When asked why he thought the election was rescheduled, Sowore replied, “There is a variety of reasons. Some of them have officially been attributed to sabotage because the ruling party does not want to leave power and they know they are facing imminent defeat. So my suspicion is that they knew this was coming, and they wanted to see if they could do more to save themselves. But I doubt if that will help.”

He said that people were rolling with the punches, and as for his campaign, “We are planning to have impact. We are good. [My intergenerational supporters] can’t wait to have the election. Whenever they ready, we’ll be ready.”