It had been two days since Nigeria’s presidential election was postponed at the behest of the military, and Idayat Hassan’s phone was ringing nonstop. “It’s like a coup against democracy,” said the director of the Center for Democracy and Development to the ninth or 10th reporter of the day. “It’s like blackmail,” Hassan said when her phone rang again. “I’m very worried,” she said to a colleague, and now she hung up the phone, put her head in her hands and sighed. “After 16 years of democracy — this.” This: For weeks, Africa’s most populous nation appeared to be barreling toward its most fiercely competitive election since it returned to civilian rule in 1999, a race between President Goodluck Jonathan and Muhammadu Buhari, a former military dictator. Hassan and others were training poll watchers. Ballot boxes were being distributed across the country. And Nigerians, from elite professionals to street hawkers, were beginning to sense a startling possibility: An election could actually kick the ruling party out. Except that then it all came to a grinding stop. And now Nigerians suddenly find themselves in an odd netherworld of anxiety about what will happen next.
Will the governing party accept the prospect of relinquishing control over a $500 billion economy? Will Buhari accept defeat if he feels the election has been rigged? Is Nigeria about to settle it all in a spiral of violence that could include everyone from rebels in the oil-rich Delta to the Boko Haram insurgency in the northeast?
“The democratic system is going to be tested — really,” said a civil servant named Edwin, who did not want to give his last name because he works for the government.
After defeating Buhari in the 2011 election, Jonathan had been running neck-and-neck with him this time, with Buhari bolstered by Lagos public relations gurus helping him overcome his image as an autocrat with a bleak human rights record that included ordering the whipping of tardy civil servants. Now cast as a reformer, Buhari was drawing huge crowds, tapping into broad frustration over high unemployment, the army’s feckless efforts against the Boko Haram insurgency and allegations of spectacular corruption in Jonathan’s administration.