Last-Minute Vote Delay Roils Africa's Biggest Democracy

(Bloomberg) -- A last-minute delay of Nigeria’s general elections by a week has jolted investor confidence in Africa’s biggest democracy, and harbors peril for the campaigns of both President Muhammadu Buhari and his main opponent, Atiku Abubakar.

The electoral commission said Saturday that the postponement of general elections just hours before polls were due to open was for logistical reasons, and not the result of political interference or security concerns. Yet, the move, announced in the middle of the night, reinforces opposition criticisms that state institutions under Buhari aren’t independent or competent enough.

The postponement won’t benefit Abubakar’s campaign either because the delay could discourage voters in areas where he needs a high turnout to win. Millions of Nigerians had traveled to their hometowns to cast their ballots and many may not be able to do the same again this week. It could also be a blow to investor confidence at a time Nigeria was beginning to emerge from its 2016 economic contraction.

“For now, every investor will be cautions, waiting to know the real reasons that prompted the postponement of an election at midnight,” Robert Omotunde, head of investment research at Lagos-based Afrinvest Ltd., said in a phone interview. “If the findings tilt towards the manipulation of the process, then expect a negative reaction. ”

Last-Minute Vote Delay Roils Africa's Biggest Democracy

The decision also heightened tensions in what has been a tight race between Buhari, a 76-year-old former military ruler, and businessman and ex-vice president Abubakar, 72. Analysts were split down the middle over who would win. Both Buhari’s APC and Abubakar’s PDP condemned the delay.

Buhari had traveled to his hometown of Daura, in Katsina state, where he intended to vote, only to return to Abuja, the capital, on Saturday.

Buhari Disappointed

The president said in a statement he was “deeply disappointed” after the electoral body’s “assurances, day after day and almost hour after hour that they are in complete readiness for the elections.”

His opponent Abubakar, who had also traveled to his hometown of Yola, in Adamawa state, described the delay as part of a plot by Buhari’s APC party to ensure a low turnout. He called on Nigerians to be patient.

Last-Minute Vote Delay Roils Africa's Biggest Democracy

Expectations that the vote would go smoothly buoyed Nigerian equities and bonds in recent weeks. The stock market gained 7.1 percent this month, the second-best performance globally, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Enormous Challenges

Independent National Electoral Commission Chairman Mahmood Yakubu told reporters INEC had faced difficulties arranging a general election involving around 100 parties, 23,300 candidates and 84 million registered voters. Bad weather had disrupted flights distributing election materials, while three commission offices in the southeast were burned in acts of “sabotage,” he said. “The challenges, even under the best circumstances, are enormous.”

As well as pushing back the presidential and parliamentary vote, INEC delayed governorship elections for a week until March 9.

Observers see Nigeria’s election as an indicator for democratic progress on the continent.

“The significance of the Nigerian elections for Africa is tremendous,” Nic Cheeseman, a professor of democracy and international development at the University of Birmingham in the U.K., said last week. “A flawed election and the political instability that this could generate would not only undermine confidence in the feasibility of democracy in one of Africa’s most important states, but also slow economic growth in West Africa and the wider region.”

Nigerian elections are regularly postponed. A week before the 2015 presidential and parliamentary vote, it was moved back by more than a month. Buhari went on to win and become the first opposition candidate to take power through the ballot box in Africa’s biggest oil producer.

‘Leadership Failure’

The delays recorded since 2007 reflect “a systemic failure of leadership at the highest level of government, and suggests that our electoral process is deliberately skewed in favour of politicians’ interests,” civic group Social and Economic Rights Accountability Project said in a statement.

In northeastern Nigeria, three suicide bombers struck a mosque in the city of Maiduguri around 5:45 a.m. on Saturday, killing eight people. A police spokesman said they were suspected militants of the Boko Haram Islamist group.

Maiduguri is the capital of Borno state, the epicenter of Boko Haram’s decade-long insurgency to impose its version of Shariah law on Nigeria. The city has mostly been secure in recent months, even as Boko Haram and a breakaway faction affiliated to Islamic State have wreaked havoc in the rest of Borno.

The election postponement cost Nigeria an estimated $2.23 billion, taking into account lost productivity and losses incurred by the electoral commission and the political parties only, according to Lagos-based business advisory SBM Intelligence.

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