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Nigeria's presidential candidates blame each other for surprise vote delay

Nigeria's top candidates on Saturday condemned the last-minute decision to delay the presidential election for a week until Feb. 23, blaming each other but appealing for calm in the electorate of Africa's largest democracy.

Announcement made just 5 hours before polls were set to open on Saturday

People check their names in voting lists in Jimeta, Nigeria, on Saturday. Nigeria's electoral watchdog postponed presidential and parliamentary elections for one week, just hours before polls were due to open. (AFP/Getty Images)

Nigeria's top candidates on Saturday condemned the last-minute decision to delay the presidential election for a week until Feb. 23, blaming each other but appealing for calm in the electorate of Africa's largest democracy.

The decision, announced a mere five hours before the polls were to open, is a costly one. Authorities now must decide what to do with already delivered voting materials in a tense atmosphere where some electoral facilities in recent days have been torched.

Electoral commission chairman Mahmood Yakubu told surprised election observers, diplomats and others that the delay had nothing to do with insecurity or political influence. He blamed "very trying circumstances" including bad weather affecting flights and the fires at three commission offices that were an apparent "attempt to sabotage our preparations."

If the vote had gone on as planned, polling units could not have opened at the same time nationwide. "This is very important to public perceptions of elections as free, fair and credible," Yakubu said, adding that as late as 2 a.m. they were still confident the election could go ahead.

'Their plan is to provoke the public'

He hoped this would be the last postponement of the election, a sprawling affair with over 23,000 candidates for various posts and more than 84 million registered voters.

Some bitter voters in the capital Abuja and elsewhere, who had travelled home to cast their ballots, said they could not afford to wait another seven days. They warned that election apathy could follow.

The party backing top opposition challenger Atiku Abubakar accused President Muhammadu Buhari's administration of "instigating this postponement" with the aim of ensuring a low turnout.

"Their plan is to provoke the public, hoping for a negative reaction, and then use that as an excuse for further anti-democratic acts," the party said. Its statement urged Nigerians to remain calm and turn out in greater numbers a week from now.

'You cannot postpone destiny'

Abubakar, speaking to reporters outside his home in northern Adamawa state, urged calm. "We will overcome this. You can postpone an election, but you cannot postpone destiny," he later tweeted. A party spokesperson in Delta state in the restive south said the commission "has destroyed the soul of Nigeria with this act."

Buhari said he was "deeply disappointed" after the electoral commission had "given assurances, day after day and almost hour after hour that they are in complete readiness for the elections. We and all our citizens believed them." His statement appealed for calm and stressed that his administration does not interfere in the commission's work.

An electoral worker takes stock of ballot papers to be transported at the offices of the Independent National Electoral Commission in Yola, Nigeria, on Friday. (Sunday Alamba/Associated Press)

A spokesperson for Buhari's campaign committee, Festus Keyamo, accused Abubakar's party of causing the delay to create a "breather" and try to slow the president's momentum.

One ruling party campaign director in Delta state, Goodnews Agbi, told The Associated Press it was better to give the commission time to conduct a credible vote instead of rushing into a sham one "that the whole world will criticize later."

Voters angry and frustrated

Frustrated voters gathered in the capital. "I came all the way from my home to cast my vote this morning ... and then I got informed that the election has been cancelled, so that is the reason why I am not happy, and I'm very, very angry," voter Yusuf Ibrahim said.

Elsewhere, some Nigerians anguished over rescheduling weddings, exams and other milestones because of the delay.

Police officers secure the entrance to the offices of the Independent National Electoral Commission in Yola. (Sunday Alamba/Associated Press)

A civic group monitoring the election, the Situation Room, blasted the "needless tension and confusion" and called on political parties to avoid incitement and misinformation.

Nigeria postponed the previous presidential election in 2015 because of deadly insecurity in the northeast, which remains under threat from Islamic extremists.

Close race

A close race is expected between Buhari and Abubakar, a billionaire former vice-president. Both have pledged to work for a peaceful election in the country of 190 million people, even as supporters, including high-level officials, have caused alarm with vivid warnings against foreign interference and allegations of rigging.

Eligible voters in the country of 190 million people must choose between 76-year-old President Muhammadu Buhari, left, and top challenger 72-year-old Atiku Abubakar, a billionaire former vice-president. (Luc Gnago/Temilade Adelaja/Reuters)

When Buhari came to power in 2015 he made history with the first defeat of an incumbent president in an election hailed as one of the most transparent and untroubled ever in Nigeria, which has seen deadly post-vote violence in the past.

Now Buhari could become the second incumbent to be unseated. This election is a referendum on his record on insecurity, the economy and corruption, all of which he has been criticized by some Nigerians for doing too little too slowly.

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