Nigeria Vote Held Hostage to Six-Week Success Against Rebels

Nigeria’s military has six weeks to do what it failed to accomplish in six years: turn the tide against the Islamist militant group Boko Haram.

That’s the timeframe Nigeria’s national security adviser gave to the electoral commission to convince it on Saturday to postpone presidential and legislative elections scheduled for Feb. 14 until March 28. If the military fails in its task, it may request further delays, threatening to undermine confidence in Africa’s largest economy, which has already been damaged by falling oil prices and a weakening currency.

“Public perception is that an additional six weeks is unlikely to yield a significant improvement in the security outlook,” Manji Cheto, the London-based vice-president at consultancy Teneo Intelligence, said by e-mail. “If another poll delay occurs, the chances of social unrest turning highly disruptive will significantly increase.”

While Nigeria’s oil-rich south and emerging middle class have attracted investment in the past decade, the failure to stamp out Boko Haram is undermining the state’s ability to guarantee basic law and order in a country of more than 170 million people and as many as 250 ethnic groups.

Boko Haram, which roughly translates as “western education is a sin,” killed more than 4,700 people, mainly in the north, last year, double the number who died in 2013, according to estimates from Bath, U.K.-based risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft.

Buhari’s Support

Critics of the postponement say President Goodluck Jonathan’s ruling People’s Democratic Party is seeking more time to thwart a surge in support for his main opponent Muhammadu Buhari, a 72-year-old northern Muslim backed by a united opposition that’s gaining support in the predominantly Christian south.

Buhari, the candidate of the All Progressives Congress, said on Sunday that he felt “disappointment and frustration,” and warned that further postponements won’t be tolerated. He urged his supporters to remain calm.

“Any act of violence can only complicate the security challenges in the country and provide further justification to those who would want to exploit every situation to frustrate the democratic process in the face of certain defeat at the polls,” he said in an e-mailed statement.

Kerry ‘Disappointed’

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said he was “deeply disappointed” by the delay and that “it is critical that the government not use security concerns as a pretext for impeding the democratic process.”

The spiraling violence in Nigeria’s northeast and an almost 50 percent decline in prices for oil, its main export, since June are tempering investor appetite for an economy that has expanded more than 5 percent annually over the past four years. Nigeria’s naira has tumbled 17 percent in the past six months against the dollar, the most among 24 African currencies tracked by Bloomberg. The Nigerian Stock Exchange All Share Index is down 41 percent over the past six months in dollar terms, the second-worst performer in the world, after Ukraine.

The Nigerian military’s pressure for a vote delay may have been borne out of fear of Buhari, said Folarin Gbadebo-Smith, managing director of the Lagos-based Center for Public Policy Alternatives.

Buhari, who came to power in a coup and ruled from 1983 to 1985 before being toppled by another military putsch, has a reputation of being tough on corruption and military incompetence.

Army’s Fear

“The primary aim is to not let Buhari come to power because everybody knows that this is the one person who has no fear of jailing the whole lot of them,” Gbadebo-Smith said in a phone interview on Sunday. “To them, this is an existential threat.”

Military spokesman Chris Olukolade’s mobile phone was switched off when calls were made Sunday seeking comment.

The delay may also help Jonathan, a 57-year-old southern Christian, and the PDP if the army can have some success on the northeastern battlefield, said Freedom Onuoha, research fellow at the National Defence College in Abuja, the capital.

“It’s in the interest of the ruling party to see if they can reclaim more territory and score some political points,” he said by phone.

Endemic Corruption

Nigeria’s military has been hampered in its battle against Boko Haram by endemic corruption, lack of equipment, desertion and low morale against an increasingly well-armed insurgent force, according to a September report by the London-based research group, Chatham House.

Now, with neighboring countries pledging military support and Chadian forces in particular already acting as a spearhead against Boko Haram, Nigeria’s army may believe its battlefield fortunes are about to turn.

“There are some signs of change, partly with the deployment of more effective Nigerian units, who have been re-taking towns in Adamawa and Yobe in recent weeks,” said Antony Goldman, head of London-based risk advisers PM Consulting. “But mostly with an apparent shift in attitude in neighboring states, and Chad in particular.”

Neighboring nations are reacting to Boko Haram’s spreading attacks. It attacked border towns inside Niger for the first time last week, days after killing more than 80 people in the town of Fotokol in Cameroon.

Chad’s Offensive

The raids followed an offensive by troops from Chad backed by their air force to drive Boko Haram out of towns it holds in northeastern Nigeria as part of its self-declared caliphate. Before the Chadian army’s intervention, the group controlled territory about the size of Belgium. African Union officials have agreed to create a regional force to fight the group.

Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, said the African force will fail to defeat the militants.

“This caliphate is very strong and dislodging it is very difficult,” Shekau said in a video posted on YouTube.

While the number of Boko Haram’s fighters is stable at 4,000 to 6,000, the group since July has taken and held some 30 towns and villages to establish an unprecedented safe haven in northeastern Nigeria that now provides an operating base, said two U.S. intelligence officials last week, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect sensitive information.

“Even with the aid of multinational forces, which will also face challenges such as logistics, financing and mutual distrust, dislodging Boko Haram from its strongholds will be an extremely complex and protracted exercise,” said Ryan Cummings, the Cape Town-based chief Africa strategist at security company Red24 Plc. “Victory is by no means assured.”

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