Politicians and voters across Nigeria expressed disappointment and dismay on Saturday after a national election was postponed hours before polls were due to open, with one opposition leader calling the move a dangerous ploy to keep President Muhammadu Buhari in power.
Buhari urged Nigerians to remain calm and to refrain from civil disorder. He was “deeply disappointed” by the delay, he said in a statement.
The one-week delay was needed to hold a free and fair election, the chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Mahmood Yakubu, told reporters in the early hours of Saturday.
“The commission came to the conclusion that proceeding with the election as scheduled is no longer feasible. Consequently the commissioners decided to reschedule the presidential and national assembly elections to Saturday 23 February 2019,” Yakuba said.
Buhari, in power since 2015, faces a tight election contest against the main opposition candidate, businessman and former vice president Atiku Abubakar.
Aides to both men said their candidates would return to the capital Abuja on Saturday. Buhari and Atiku are in the northern states of Katsina and Adamawa, where they had been due to vote.
The chairman of the main opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP), Uche Secondu, said the move was “dangerous to our democracy and unacceptable”.
He said it was part of an attempt by Buhari to “cling on to power even when it’s obvious to him that Nigerians want him out”.
Buhari’s ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) party also criticised the electoral commission for the delay. The president had cooperated fully with the commission to ensure it had everything it had demanded to conduct free and fair elections, it said in a statement.
In a separate statement, Buharai urged Nigerians to “refrain from all civil disorder and remain peaceful, patriotic and united”. He was committed to the electoral commission’s neutrality, he said.
Voters across Nigeria – Africa’s largest economy, top oil producer and most populous nation – also said they were unhappy.
In the northeastern city of Maiduguri, people gathered for morning prayers after which they had planned to vote.
“We are disappointed and deeply pained by the postponement of the election. We spent our all night without sleeping hoping to vote today and just hearing the news that the election was been postponed,” said one worshipper, Auwolu Usman.
Kabiru Sale, 27, who sells oil in the northern city of Kano, said the move took him by surprise.
“I am not happy with the suspension. I had already gone out to cast my vote only to be told on the way about the suspension. I do not really understand why they suspended the election,” he said.
Commission officials told Reuters there had been problems circulating ballot papers and results sheets.
Presidential elections in 2011 and 2015 were also delayed over logistics and security issues.
Nigeria is also dealing with pockets of instability and past elections have been marred by violence, intimidation and ballot rigging. Authorities had bolstered security in much of the country.
Dozens of policemen and other security forces were deployed from police headquarters in Maiduguri, the capital of northeast Borno state that has been worst hit by the Boko Haram militant group and its offshoot, Islamic State in West Africa Province.
INEC said voting to elect state governors was also to be delayed by a week to Mar. 9.
The president’s spokesman said INEC was expected to hold a meeting at 2pm local time (1300 GMT).
UPDATE: Nigeria opposition candidate Atiku Abubakar urges voters to be patient
Nigerian opposition candidate Atiku Abubakar on Saturday appealed to voters to be patient following the postponement of a presidential election by a week.
Atiku told reporters at his residence that he was shocked by the electoral commission’s decision to delay the vote until Feb. 23. “I’m appealing to Nigerians to please come out and vote and I’m asking them to be patient about it,” he said.