This weekend's developments have been embarrassing for the INEC and for Jega, in particular, who was recently praised by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson for his work in cleaning up the dysfunctional commission -- in just 10 months as chairman. In the wake of the delay announcements, some prominent civil society groups still expressed their support for Jega, saying they feared sabotage -- by political elites fearing a changed post-election order -- was behind the facade of logistics confusion. In other words, members of Jega's own staff may not have kept him informed about the extreme delays in delivery of key materials, leaving him in the dark before his address on the eve of Saturday's aborted polls. Opposition candidate and former military leader Muhammadu Buhari told Reuters that the ruling party "is afraid to let people come out and vote."
Jega now finds himself between a rock and a hard place -- if he resigns in the coming weeks (as was suggested by the Nigerian Human Rights Commission), he would be making a statement about the attempts of the political elite to discreetly undermine him, but he would forfeit the chance to attempt broader reforms within the electoral commission after the vote. Either way, the elections are coming, and it is clear that the consequences of the 2011 vote will not be inconsequential. Nigeria is a giant on the African continent: It is a diplomatic leader in regional crises from Libya to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and, most recently, the Ivory Coast. And, as Africa's largest oil and gas producer, it's the undeniable economic motor of the region. The outcome of these elections will set the tone for a whopping 27 votes set to take place on the continent this year. No wonder the International Crisis Group recently warned that if Nigeria's elections do not "reverse the degeneration of the franchise since Nigeria returned to civilian rule in 1999," the impact ill be felt locally and internationally.
In the presidential race, which has now been pushed back from April 9 to 16, the country's roiling and potentially explosive internal political dynamics are on display. Jonathan, the incumbent presidential candidate of the ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP) cleared the first hurdle in the campaign season by winning his party's nomination in January. The victory confirmed that the PDP would, in choosing Jonathan, overlook its gentleman's agreement of rotating the presidency between northern and southern leaders every eight years -- a deal that maintains a fragile balance between powerful regional and religious interests in the country. If that deal were followed, Jonathan, a southerner, would have had to defer for another four years to a northern candidate.
The president's main challenger, Buhari, has played upon disappointments in the north over the PDP's backing of a southerner, Jonathan. Buhari, a northerner who ruled Nigeria from 1983 to 1985, has wide support there in no small part because of his ruthless reputation in office for cracking down on corruption. He has rebranded himself as a candidate for change and may take the vote in the north of the country, though not likely overall.
Anticipating such a challenge, and as a necessary conciliatory gesture, Jonathan took a northerner as his running mate. But that hasn't prevented him from dipping a toe into Nigeria's fractious religious-ethnic politics more than once during the campaign season -- which may worsen tensions in already volatile areas of the country. For example, the president recently traveled to Jos, capital of the tense Middle Belt region -- where more than 250 people have died since Christmas in complex intercommunal violence -- to show his support for incumbent Plateau state governor Jonah Jang, who is notorious for inflaming local tensions between warring communities. Jang has a firm grip on power; during his term, he has skillfully practiced the arts of godfatherism and patronage while consolidating the government's repressive indigene system, which discriminates against more recent settlers to the region. Jang, however, faces competition from his deputy governor, also from the ruling PDP, in one of many races that is now being deemed too close to call; hotly contested races such as this one are likely to inflame tensions during polling and its aftermath.