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Nigeria

Opinion: Who will believe Nigeria?

A week before its scheduled presidential election, Nigeria has pulled the emergency brake and delayed the vote by six weeks. But the reasons for the postponement don't sound very convincing to DW's Thomas Mösch.

The decision to postpone Nigeria's presidential election raises more questions than it answers. In fact, in recent days it had become increasingly clear that the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) was far from finished with its preparations.

But INEC chairman Attahiru Jega, a respected political scientist professor, in no way blamed these problems for the postponement. On the contrary: He has adamantly asserted that his organization could go ahead with the election as scheduled on February 14.

Security excuse?

Instead, the decision was based on a "new argument," namely that the security of election officials and voters could not be guaranteed. Jega said security forces had presented him with a convincing argument: They were planning a major offensive against the terrorist group Boko Haram in the country's northeast in the coming days, and would not be able to secure the polling stations at the same time.

Deutsche Welle Afrika Haussa Thomas Mösch

Thomas Mösch, of DW's Africa department

But this reasoning put forward by Jega raises several questions:

First: How could risks to the safety of voters possibly be a new argument? For months, large areas in northeastern Nigeria have been under the control of murderous terrorists who have also been carrying out attacks in other parts of the country. Nevertheless, all political parties have repeatedly assured the public that the election could go ahead.

This raises two more questions: Why have security forces just now come up with the idea of launching an offensive against Boko Haram that's large enough that they allegedly would not be in a position to secure the election in the rest of the country? And why should they be able to make any progress against the terrorists in the next six weeks when nothing has changed in the past five years?

What's the truth?

Jega's excuses, reported late Saturday night, would have been just as true four or eight weeks ago as they are today. Not many Nigerians will be convinced.

In addition, the question of the election date has long split members of the government and the opposition. While many smaller parties on Saturday chose to back President Goodluck Jonathan and his People's Democratic Party (PDP) and his call for a new election date, the opposition All Progressives Congress (APC) led by Muhammadu Buhari kept up its resistance. The coming hours and days will show whether the public peace will be able to withstand this division.

Given these unconvincing reasons, many are expected to look for the true motives behind the election delay. After all, the INEC has now handed over responsibility to the security forces. What happens when they decide that a vote in six weeks' time would also be too dangerous? Election dates in March and April are still allowed under the constitution, which requires an official handover to the next president on May 29, at the latest.

But if the army, police and intelligence services decide to put off the vote any later than that, Nigeria could be facing a constitutional crisis. With President Jonathan's popularity levels much lower now than they were when he was elected four years ago, critics fear that he might be intending just that: If the security situation does not allow elections, then they just can't happen.

Success against Boko Haram?

But there are a few positive points. First, there is the INEC's Jega. Four years ago, he showed that he was capable of unexpected decisions if he believed it would result in an orderly vote. On the first day of the election in 2011, he decided to postpone the vote as organizational chaos became clear. A week later, a more or less organized vote was able to go ahead.

Militarily, the situation has also improved in the first days of February. With the help of troops from neighboring countries - especially Chad - Boko Haram fighters in the border regions have been put on the defensive. Maybe Nigeria's military now actually sees a chance to make advances in a short timeframe. The probability that the army and leaders in Abuja have finally realized what needs to be done, however, is relatively small. But maybe everything will turn out for the best in the end - just like it did four years ago.