ABUJA Nigeria's electoral commission says it is postponing the Feb. 14 presidential election until March 28 due to security concerns, caving in to pressure from the ruling People's Democratic Party in a move likely to enrage the opposition.
Foreign powers are closely observing how elections will be held in Africa's biggest economy and have voiced concerns over violence in the aftermath, as was the case after the 2011 election, when 800 people died.
The postponement could stoke unrest in opposition strongholds such as the commercial capital, Lagos, and Nigeria's second city, Kano, as the opposition has been staunchly against a delay.
The poll will pit incumbent Goodluck Jonathan of the PDP against former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari of the All Progressives Congress in what is likely to be the most hotly contested election since the end of military rule in 1999.
"The commission cannot lightly wave off the advice of the nation's security chiefs... The risk of deploying young men and women and calling people to exercise their democratic rights in a situation where their security cannot be guaranteed is a most onerous responsibility," Attahiru Jega, chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission told reporters.
"Consequently the commission has decided to reschedule the elections thus. The national elections, i.e. presidential and national assembly are to hold on March 28, 2015; governorship and state assembly elections are to hold on April 11, 2015."
Jega said the National Security Advisor had written a letter to INEC last week stating that it could not guarantee security during the original proposed election timetable because of on-going military operations to fight Boko Haram insurgents, a position the NSA reinforced during Thursday's meeting with the Council of State.
"Nobody has coerced us...to take this decision" Jega said.
The ruling PDP has been pressuring the commission to delay the polls, arguing it is not ready to hold them. National Security Advisor Sambo Dasuki called for a delay last month over concerns that not enough biometric I.D. cards necessary for voting would be distributed in time.
Concerns over security, due to the Sunni jihadist insurgency in the northeast, have been raised several times as a reason for a delay, though INEC had outlined red zones where the vote cannot be held and alternative polling units for the affected constituencies.
The APC has insisted on keeping the February date for the elections to remain credible, saying the only reason the pro-Jonathan camp is pushing for a delay is that it knows he will lose if he goes to the polls now.
Buhari, who is running for a fourth time against the PDP, believes that he will win this time. Jonathan was initially viewed as a shoe-in, but the momentum has shifted to the opposition in the last few months.
Nigerians see him as a strongman against corruption and one who will have more success in quashing Boko Haram.
Though Jonathan has failed on the insurgency front, he created universities and privatized the electric power sector.
His presidency also oversaw the implementation of an amnesty program with delta militants led by the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, which ended years of rampant violence, sabotage and kidnappings in the oil-producing region.
(The story was refiled to correct the quote to "onerous" in paragraph 5)
(Reporting by Julia Payne; Editing by Dan Grebler)