Nigeria Postpones State Elections Amid Presidential Vote Controversy

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Nigeria has postponed state elections that had been scheduled for Saturday, heightening popular anger and cynicism over whether the country can conduct a fair vote only two weeks after a presidential election tainted with technical malfunctions and allegations of fraud.

Since the declaration a little over a week ago that the governing party’s candidate, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, had won the presidential election, Africa’s most populous nation has spiraled further into economic and political paralysis.

Now the country’s electoral commission has moved the election for the country’s powerful state governors back by a week, saying it needs more time to reset digital voting machines used for the first time in the presidential election last month. The vote for governors is now scheduled for March 18.

The postponement of the election for 28 of the country’s 36 state governors is just the latest challenge faced by Nigeria, a country of 220 million people that has been plagued by fuel scarcity, a cash crunch and multiple security crises.

Mr. Tinubu, a divisive figure in Nigerian politics, won the election with 36 percent of the vote, but the two other main candidates, Atiku Abubakar and Peter Obi, have called for a rerun, alleging vote rigging. A new vote appears unlikely, and Mr. Tinubu is scheduled to be sworn in on May 29.

Hopes were high ahead of the largest democratic election ever organized in Africa, and Nigerian officials recorded fewer instances of violence than in previous contests. But countless malfunctions — from polling units that opened late or not at all, to the sluggishness of ballot counting — have eroded Nigerians’ trust.

“The electoral process remains chaotic, with no improvement from one election to another,” said Idayat Hassan, director of the Center for Democracy and Development, a research and advocacy group based in Abuja, the capital.

The confusion over the elections has been compounded by a seemingly never-ending cash crunch: New notes introduced by the government just months before the election have remained largely unavailable, while old ones are not valid anymore.

Last Friday, the Nigerian Supreme Court ruled that the use of old bank notes should be extended until Dec. 31 because of the impact of the policy on Nigerians’ livelihoods. But neither the government nor the central bank have addressed the issue, leaving most businesses, street traders and even public bus drivers wary of accepting the old notes, even as some banks begin to distribute them again.

In Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city, one trader, Adelaja Adetoun, was trying to gain access to a commercial bank on Thursday, her face beaded with sweat. “The old notes I received from the banks are being rejected and I need to return them,” she said.

Ms. Adetoun, 67, said she was not interested in the state elections, especially since they had been postponed.

That decision has left some analysts worried that the turnout on March 18 will be drastically lower than that of the presidential election, in which just over a quarter of 87 million eligible voters cast a ballot. It was the lowest voter turnout ever recorded for a Nigerian presidential election.

In many ways, the state elections are as important, said Oge Onubogu, head of the Africa Program at the Wilson Center, a Washington-based research institute.

“States are grooming grounds for governors who want to be Nigeria’s next president,” she said. (Both Mr. Tinubu and Mr. Obi are former state governors.) “Some governors oversee budgets that are larger than other West African countries,” Ms. Onubogu said.

The digital voting machines that need to be reconfigured ahead of the state vote are at the center of a controversy around the presidential election.

Using the machines, election officials were supposed to verify voters’ identities and to photograph result sheets in each polling unit, uploading them to a website publicly accessible shortly after the voting ended on Feb. 25.

But the country’s Independent National Electoral Commission, known as INEC, failed to fulfill that mission, according to multiple observers. Instead, the results were uploaded days later, prompting Mr. Abubakar’s and Mr. Obi’s parties to accuse election officials and Mr. Tinubu’s party of having manipulated the results.

To countless Nigerians, the delays and lack of transparency left a bitter taste.

“INEC’s performance has made many Nigerians feel that their vote doesn’t count,” said Joachim MacEbong, a senior governance analyst at Stears, a Nigerian data and intelligence company. “It’s difficult to see how they’re going to rebuild their credibility.”

International observers voiced similar concern.

“The number of administrative and logistical problems flawed the outcome,” Johnnie Carson, a former assistant secretary of state for African affairs in the Obama administration, who was in Nigeria to monitor the election, said this week.

Officials from Mr. Obi’s party have said that the results uploaded by the electoral commission didn’t match those that party workers collected when the polling units closed. A representative for Mr. Obi, Diran Onifade, refused to provide the results collected, but in a phone interview said the election had been marred by “sabotage.”

Mr. Obi’s team now has a few days to inspect the electronic voting machines before the electoral commission reconfigures them for the state elections.

Ms. Hassan, the Center for Democracy and Development analyst, and Ms. Onubogu of the Wilson Center both said that a fair and functional Nigerian election experience mattered almost more than the outcome.

“Nigerians needed to be able to see that the process worked,” said Ms. Onubogu.

Instead, Ms. Hassan said, “More and more citizens are losing trust in democracy itself because of these dysfunctions.”


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