ABUJA: Nigeria has postponed its presidential election on security grounds as the Boko Haram conflict intensifies, handing a potential lifeline to the ruling party as it battles a tough challenge from the opposition.
The six-week delay was announced yesterday after security chiefs said the military needed more time to secure areas under the control of Boko Haram, the Islamist extremists who have seized swathes of northeastern Nigeria.
Presidential and parliamentary elections will now be held on March 28 instead of February 14, said Attahiru Jega, chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission.
Gubernatorial and state assembly elections will be held on April 11, he added. Jega said security chiefs advised that the election should be postponed for six weeks as military operations in the northeast left troops unavailable to secure the vote.
"If the security of personnel, voters, election observers and election materials cannot be guaranteed, the lives of innocent young men and women and the prospect of free, fair and credible elections will be greatly jeopardised," he told reporters.
President Goodluck Jonathan has been locked in a tight race with the main opposition candidate, former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari.
But with the campaign now extended, analysts said the advantage could swing in favour of Jonathan's People's Democratic Party (PDP).
The US said it was "deeply disappointed" by the delay, with Secretary of State John Kerry warning the Nigerian government against using "security concerns as a pretext for impeding the democratic process".
The PDP, never out of power since Nigeria returned to civilian rule in 1999, has the advantage of incumbency and access to greater funds than Buhari's All Progressives Congress (APC).
The APC has repeatedly accused the government of trying to scupper the vote and APC national chairman John Odigie-Oyegun called the delay "highly provocative", blasting it as "a major setback for Nigerian democracy".
He added: "I strongly appeal to all Nigerians to remain calm and deist from violence and any activity which will compound this unfortunate development."
Dawn Dimolo of the Africapractice consulting firm said the delay could allow the PDP to claw back votes -- but the move could also boost the opposition.