LAGOS, Nigeria (BP) — The six-week postponement of presidential elections in Nigeria could achieve fairness by allowing perhaps millions of citizens displaced by Boko Haram violence to vote, Nigeria relations expert Adeniyi Ojutiku told Baptist Press.
While Boko Haram has successfully overtaken areas of northeastern Nigeria, the African Union international security forces strengthened by Cameroon, Chad and Niger could overcome Boko Haram within the six-week period, said Ojutiku, a Southern Baptist in Raleigh, N.C., who leads the Lift Up Now grassroots outreach to his Nigerian homeland.
“With Nigeria joining forces with these multinational forces, I see a possibility within a short time, of being able to have military superiority over Boko Haram and deal with the issue,” Ojutiku said. “I believe that the extension of time will give everybody opportunity to evaluate, to investigate, and to be confident that the election is free and fair.”
Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) postponed Feb. 14 elections until March 28, citing security concerns. But supporters of opposition candidate Muhammadu Buhari of the All Progressives Congress (APC) have accused Nigeria President Goodluck Jonathan of using the delay to manipulate a favorable outcome for the ruling party. There are two schools of thought, Ojutiku said.
“Those who support the opposition, such as the APC, they feel that the postponement is a delay tactic by the government in power to recalibrate its campaign, so that they can do more work to get more voters swayed in their direction,” Ojutiku said. “The people who support the government, yes, they like this idea of postponement…. With the regional multinational force, with the U.S.-Nigeria binational military efforts, they think that it is very possible that within six weeks to have Boko Haram completely dismantled to the point where elections can be held freely and safely.”
An untold number of voters in the northeastern Nigeria states of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa, perhaps millions, are currently disenfranchised, Ojutiku said. Displaced by Boko Haram violence, they don’t likely have access to their Permanent Voter Cards required for identification at polling places.
“The constitution of Nigeria compels for a national election, especially a presidential election, it compels that all Nigerians within the states of the federation must be able to vote on the same day. Evidently, people from three states not being able to vote, it will be a breach of the constitution,” Ojutiku said. “The people are displaced and there cannot be any voting. So legally, the voting should not even take place. The state security agencies claim that there is no way they can guarantee safety for the election for the voters, for the observers, for the people administering the election in these localities.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, in a Feb. 7 press statement questioning the delay, seemed to sympathize with the APC.
“The United States is deeply disappointed by the decision to postpone Nigeria’s presidential election,” Kerry said. “Political interference with the Independent National Electoral Commission is unacceptable, and it is critical that the government not use security concerns as a pretext for impeding the democratic process. The international community will be watching closely as the Nigerian government prepares for elections on the newly scheduled dates. The United States underscores the importance of ensuring that there are no further delays.”
Bonajo Badejo, a Nigerian attorney and Lift Up Now member who testified Jan. 27 about the elections before a U.S. House subcommittee, told Baptist Press that while such a delay tactic would be unfortunate, a concern for security could be a legitimate.
“If the postponement is born out of genuine effort to ensure a free, fair and credible election, then there is nothing to worry about,” he said in an email from his office in Lagos, Nigeria. “But if it turns out that the electoral process is being manipulated, then it is a sad day indeed for Nigeria and our nascent democracy.”
During his committee testimony, Badejo detailed a prevailing fear in Nigeria as the presidential elections neared.
“It is a matter for deep regret that in the build-up to the 2015 General elections, all the factors which militated against free, fair and credible elections [during previous presidential elections] have resurfaced and have become more pronounced than Nigeria has ever experienced,” Badejo told the U.S. House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health and Global Human Rights. “The looming fear of disenfranchisement of a large segment of the voting populace is real.”
As many as 42 percent of voters had not collected their PVCs as of early January, Badejo told the subcommittee, amounting to more than 28 million voters being disenfranchised.
A delay could allow the INEC to develop a plan to enable internally displaced people to vote, Ojutiku told Baptist Press, but said voters displaced to countries outside Nigeria might simply not be able to participate in the election.
“With what is going on, there is no way some people will not be disenfranchised, I mean there is just no way,” he said. “But if we can at least minimize that to the purest minimum, I believe that the statistical significance will not be such that it will influence the outcome of the results. But in terms of the individual, I still feel it is not right to be disenfranchised. To be deliberately disenfranchised, due to no fault of your own, I don’t think it’s the right thing to do.”
But if at least those persons displaced internally within Nigeria are enabled to vote, Ojutiku said, then the elections would technically not violate the constitution.
“It solves the problem to a large extent. It solves the constitutional problem, OK, because then you are not cordoning off a geographical area of the country from voting,” he said, “because if you do that, then that is a constitutional problem.”