Nigerian activists and citizens on Saturday warned their government against further postponement of the nation’s general election at a pro-Democracy “sit-out” in Lagos.
The election had been scheduled for February 14, but the Nigerian election commission postponed the vote to March 28 because of security concerns amid Boko Haram violence. But leaders within Nigeria’s civil society say the reason provided by the commission is not genuine. They suspect the ruling party, afraid of a possible defeat at the polls, wants to cling to power.
“Any other postponement will be a fight to the finish,” lawyer and human rights activist Femi Falana told the crowd at the event. By that he meant Nigerians will take to the streets and use all legal means available to fight further election delays. “We are not going to accept any other postponement,” he said.
The “sit-out” coincided with the previously planned date for Nigeria’s election, in which Goodluck Jonathan is seeking a second four-year term. It also marked the launch of a new movement, Nigerians United for Democracy, which seeks to mobilize citizens against possible moves by the government to thwart Nigeria’s democratic process.
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“We are reading the temperature and we are monitoring the situation carefully,” a civil society leader, Malachi Ugwumadu, told Rewire. “Once the redline is crossed, we will take action. The redline will be crossed when the ruling class fails to organize the election, which the Nigerian people have been mobilized for … and our action will be legitimate. We will return to the trenches,” he said, referring to legal tactics, such as mass actions and protests, that were deployed in the fight for democracy during Nigeria’s military rule.
The ruling party, the People’s Democratic Party, has won all presidential elections since Nigeria’s return to democracy in 1999. But this year, the party faces its greatest threat from the All Progressives Congress (APC), an alliance of major opposition parties that merged in February 2013 in anticipation of the 2015 elections.
The APC’s presidential candidate is General Muhammadu Buhari. The 72-year old retired major general ruled Nigeria from December 31, 1983, to August 27, 1985, after taking power in a military coup. He ran unsuccessfully for president in the last three elections. But this time, Boko Haram’s increasingly violent insurgency is helping to prop up support for the main opposition candidate.
“It’s something that will inform the way I vote,” said Ayo Obe, one of the rights activists campaigning for the return of more than 200 girls abducted ten months ago by Boko Haram. “People make the mistake of thinking that those who are making up their minds to vote for Buhari are doing so because they love him and think he is a saint. It’s not like that. It’s because we have a crisis on hand.”
The crisis, a Boko Haram insurgency that has left thousands dead across Nigeria’s northeast, has been a major talking point for Buhari, whose campaign to unseat President Jonathan was gaining momentum prior to February 7, when the Independent National Electoral Commission postponed elections until March 28.
Attahiru Jega, the electoral commission chairman, announced the postponement after security chiefs told him they were unable to promise safety while launching a planned military operation against Boko Haram, which now has a huge chunk of territory under its control. But the opposition sees the postponement as a ploy by the ruling party to buy time and make gains ahead of the vote.
Those gains include improved security in the northeast and the possible rescue of “some” of the girls who were kidnapped last April. At a media chat, the president said the army now has better weapons to fight Boko Haram and that “in the next few weeks we should begin to see results.”
But not everyone believes the president. “For me it’s too little too late, because we have had months and months and months of promises, and it all turned out to be lies,” said Yemisi Ransome–Kuti, a Lagos-based leader of the local Bring Back Our Girls campaign. “If at the last minute [Jonathan says] just because we are having elections these girls are now going to be rescued, to me it’s like rubbing salt on my injury.”
Three neighboring African states, led by Chad, have joined the battle to crush the insurgency following attacks on their own soil.
But with the election a few weeks away, Boko Haram’s bloody rampage continues. On February 14, when the election was supposed to take place, the group launched a fresh attack on Gombe, one of the northeastern states previously thought to be relatively safe. A day later, a female suicide bomber attacked a bus station in the northeastern city of Damuturu. That attack reportedly left about a dozen people dead.
There are also concerns that the election could turn violent, as no outcome is likely to be entirely smooth. Jonathan, a Christian from the oil-rich southern Niger Delta, seeks to beat Buhari, a Muslim from the north whose popularity appears to have increased over time.
Former Niger Delta militants have vowed to ensure that President Jonathan, the only member from the Ijaw minority tribe to govern Nigeria, comes out victorious at the polls. Buhari, on the other hand, commands a messianic followership in the north. Some of his supporters refused the election results that declared Jonathan winner in 2011, leading to violence that reportedly left 800 people dead.