Five hours before polls were set to open on 16 February, the head of Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) announced that the upcoming elections would be postponed by one week, claiming the body was unable to distribute voting materials across the country’s 36 states.
The countrywide delay averted a staggered election, often seen as a recipe for rigging, but the real question is why the commission let it come to the last minute to realize it wasn’t ready to run elections.
Although the EU has deployed an election observation mission to the country, its political leadership has kept its distance. With the success of Africa’s biggest democracy at risk, the EU can do more. At a minimum, it should send a firm diplomatic message of zero tolerance for political interference in the INEC and join the UK and US in making clear there will be consequences for instigators of violence and fraudsters.
Frustration among Nigerians is palpable. Many questions remain unanswered regarding the detail of the postponement and concerns have been raised about the security of voting materials, and the enormous cost of delay, estimated at $1.5 billion (€1.3 billion). With two septuagenarians facing off – incumbent ex-general Muhammadu Buhari and former vice-president Atiku Abubakar – Nigerians’ hope for a real change of direction for their country is low. The INEC’s last-minute delay has left even more voters wondering about these elections. It is unclear whether Nigerians, often traveling large distances to cast their vote, will be bothered to go to the same trouble again.
The EU on the ground has played an important role in consolidating Nigeria’s democratic gains. A well-respected observation mission, together with other international observers, has a stabilizing effect on the conduct of elections. The EU delegation provides vital support to civil society organizations – including domestic observer groups – keeping Nigerian authorities accountable. It has promoted and protected the independence of critical institutions like the INEC while calling out misconduct in the lead-up to elections. This triple approach - promoting, protecting and pressuring the INEC – will be vital to delivering elections by Saturday.
Brussels, by contrast, has been quiet. The EU’s political leadership does not consider the success of Africa’s biggest democracy a priority – a critical error. It has not used its leverage to ensure Nigerian authorities deliver safe and fair elections. This contrasts sharply with the UK and US, who have warned those who undermine the democratic process that actions will have consequences, such as visa restrictions. The fact that the EU is negotiating a sensitive agreement with Nigeria on returns and readmission of migrants begs the question where the EU is willing to put its political weight.
The immediate challenge is to pull off elections this Saturday. In order to restore battered confidence in the electoral commission, the INEC’s independence needs to be protected from accusations of political interference by the two main parties. Public and private messaging by the EU and its partners - while closely monitoring the INEC’s progress - will be key in keeping the INEC on track. In parallel, the EU should push for a full probe into the INEC’s failure to deliver elections on time, to identify those responsible and hold them to account.
Past Nigerian elections have been marred by violence, often after results are announced rather than during voting itself. EU leaders should publicly and privately insist on the neutrality of the security sector — which has been accused of partisanship — especially when there’s no clear winner, or if the loser does not concede. EU leaders should remind Nigerian authorities that cooperation with the EU is based on respect for good governance and the rule of law, as enshrined in the Cotonou Agreement. The threat of visa bans, like those set out by the US and the UK, could deter the security forces’ partisan behavior.
If the outcome of the election is contested, all eyes will be on the courts, which have been compromised by the illegal suspension of the Chief Justice by President Buhari just two weeks before elections. The EU observation mission has rightfully condemned this move. By supporting the call for the full publication of all election results and, depending on the outcome, an independent audit, the EU can help ensure the integrity of the vote.
Finally, civil society has been leading the push for reform in Nigeria but has been doing so under increasingly difficult circumstances. The EU should make it clear that it stands by its civil society partners and that intimidation and harassment of civic actors, especially those working on electoral issues, is unacceptable.
What happens to Nigeria reverberates across the region. Last month, the EU gave a masterclass in losing credibility by endorsing a rigged election in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s high-profile vote. In Nigeria, Africa’s largest democracy, it still has a chance to get it right.