The postponement of Nigerian elections offers President Goodluck Jonathan a chance to regain the initiative in the face of a Boko Haram insurgency and test the staying power of political rivals.
But against a precarious backdrop of regional, religious and ethnic tension the extension of campaigning by six weeks risks fraying nerves still further.
It could also backfire for the ruling People’s Democratic Party, in power since the restoration of civilian rule in 1999. Nigeria’s economy — the biggest in Africa but dependent on crude exports for more than 90 per cent of export earnings — has taken a battering as a result of the falling oil price.
This has exposed the Jonathan government’s failure to put savings away during the boom years — amid persistent allegations of grand scale corruption — and is now hitting Nigerians directly in the pocket, via the depreciating national currency.
“I don’t see what would change for the ruling party in six weeks in terms of its political fortunes. If anything it could get worse,” said Clement Nwankwo, director of the Abuja-based Policy and Legal Advocacy Centre and a veteran democracy activist.
Washington also voiced disapproval. “It is critical that the government not use security concerns as a pretext for impeding the democratic process,” John Kerry, US the secretary of state, said.
Mr Kerry’s comments reflect fears among Nigerian civil society and opposition activists that the government may seek to extend its mandate beyond a four-year term ending on May 29, or plunge the country back into the hands of the military. Both government officials and the army command have publicly rejected rumours to that effect.
Until the weekend, Attahiru Jega, chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) had resisted government calls for the postponement. These were underpinned partly by concerns that violence in the northeast, where Boko Haram terrorists have seized a swath of territory, will prevent hundreds of thousands of voters from casting their ballots.