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article imageDoubts increase in Nigeria over planned presidential poll

By Ola Awoniyi (AFP)     Feb 7, 2015 in World

Nigeria's knife-edge presidential elections were thrown into increasing doubt on Saturday as the country's election commission met following reports that the military was pushing for a delay.

The chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Attahiru Jega, told delegates that there were "new developments" in preparations for next Saturday's planned poll.

It is understood that the closed-door meeting in Abuja was about reported recommendations from the military high command to delay polling by six weeks.

Nigeria's Weekly Trust newspaper, which did not quote sources, said the chiefs of defence staff and national security advisor had written to Jega "strongly advising" a six-week postponement.

Troops from Nigeria, backed by soldiers from Chad, Cameroon and Niger, were mounting a regional fight-back against Boko Haram and needed more time to bring security to the troubled region.

As such, no soldiers would be available to provide security next week, the newspaper said.

There was no immediate response from the military when contacted by AFP and INEC has scheduled a news conference for later on Saturday.

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.

Nigerian President and presidential candidate of the ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP) Goo...
Nigerian President and presidential candidate of the ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP) Goodluck Jonathan waves to supporters as he arrives to campaign for re-election in Port Harcourt in the Niger Delta region on January 28, 2015
Pius Utomi Ekpei, AFP/File

Nigeria's national security advisor last month called for a delay to ensure that all cards were delivered but INEC has repeatedly ruled out a date change.

On Thursday, Jonathan, Buhari and other former heads of state met in Abuja and again discussed the possibility of a delay. But Jega stood firm.

- Violence fears -

President Goodluck 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 Muhammadu Buhari, the main opposition candidate and 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 prompt a violent reaction from angered opposition supporters, who are hoping to inflict a defeat on the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (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 northeast 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.

Leading opposition All Progressives Congress (APC) presidential candidate Muhammadu Buhari speaks du...
Leading opposition All Progressives Congress (APC) presidential candidate Muhammadu Buhari speaks during an interview in Abuja on February 6, 2015

Buhari's All Progressives Congress (APC) party has already said the overall result will be in doubt if displaced people in its northeastern stronghold are disenfranchised.

Commentators have already raised the prospect of a legal challenge from either side after the result and even a run-off, which would also likely inflame tensions.

- Boko Haram excuse -

Ryan Cummings, chief Africa analyst at Red24 risk consultants, said it would be surprising if the six-year Boko Haram insurgency was used a reason for postponement rather than voter card problems.

He told AFP in an email that it was "extremely optimistic" to suggest that significant gains would be made against the militants between now and 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.

"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, being 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.

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