Nigeria weighs six-week election delay

Abuja (AFP) - Nigeria's knife-edge presidential elections were thrown into increasing doubt on Saturday, as the country's electoral commission met to discuss a minimum six-week delay to voting.

Politicians who attended the meeting at the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) said the talks about a postponement came after a recommendation from national security advisor Sambo Dasuki.

PDM party chairman Bashir Yusuf said Dasuki had told INEC that because of ongoing operations against Boko Haram militants, the military "will be unable to provide adequate security" for the February 14 vote.

"On the basis of that the national security advisor has requested INEC to consider rescheduling the elections for at least a period of six weeks," Yusuf added.

INEC chairman Attahiru Jega has been under mounting pressure to delay polling because of increased fears about the distribution of permanent voter cards to 68.8 million registered electors.

But he has repeatedly ruled out a date change, even after the issue was raised this week at a meeting of the powerful council of states, comprising the current and former presidents.

The electoral body scheduled a news conference for 5:00 pm (1600 GMT), but more than five hours later Jega and INEC officials were said to be still locked in talks.

The national secretary of President Goodluck Jonathan's ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Wale Oladipo, said they would "abide by any decision taken by INEC".

But Yusuf said that some parties present at the meeting, including the main opposition All Progressives Congress (APC), were against any delay.

- Violence fears -

Jonathan, battered by criticism over his handling of the Boko Haram crisis, corruption and the economy, is seeking a second four-year term of office.

But with seven days left until the polls, the result is seen as too close to call, even if the APC's Muhammadu Buhari, a former military ruler, has predicted he will secure a "landslide victory".

Dawn Dimowo, from the africapractice consulting firm, said Friday that any delay "could lead to enhanced stability" and allow logistical problems to be resolved.

But it could also prompt a violent reaction from angered opposition supporters, who are hoping to inflict a defeat on the PDP for the first time in 16 years.

Protesters took to the streets in the capital Abuja bearing placards reading "Say no to election postponement", while civil society groups called on the electoral body to "resist military pressure".

In 2011, some 1,000 people were killed in post-poll rioting. This year Boko Haram's control of territory in three northeastern states has made voting impossible for hundreds of thousands of people.

Since the start of the year, the militant group has stepped up its campaign, partly to undermine the democratic process, which it views as un-Islamic.

The APC has already said the overall result will be in doubt if displaced people in its northeastern stronghold are disenfranchised.

Commentators have also raised the prospect of a legal challenge from either side after the result, which would also likely inflame tensions.

- Boko Haram excuse -

Ryan Cummings, chief Africa analyst at the Red24 risk consultancy, said it would be surprising if the six-year Boko Haram insurgency was used as a reason for postponement rather than voter card problems.

He said it was "extremely optimistic" to suggest that a military coalition of Nigeria, Niger, Chad, Cameroon and Benin would make significant gains against the militants before the end of March.

"As far as I know, Gamboru has been the only major town to be secured by Nigeria and its international partners since the launch of multi-national counter-insurgency operations," he said.

"To dislodge Boko Haram from all of these areas in a period of six weeks would be an unprecedented feat.

"But even if achieved, securing liberated territories would be a task in its own, particularly if multinational forces withdraw their presence from Nigeria."

The election, if it goes ahead, will include voting for a new national assembly, with state assembly and governorship polls two weeks later.

The PDP, which has been in power since Nigeria returned to civilian rule in 1999, has questioned Buhari's health, religious views and even his eligibility to stand.

He and his party have dismissed the smears as a diversionary tactic intended to deflect attention from the government's record.

The PDP meanwhile has played up its purported achievements in office, such as overseeing Nigeria's emergence as Africa's leading economy and efforts to decrease reliance on oil revenues.