ABUJA (Reuters) - Nigeria’s military pledged not to get involved in party politics on Wednesday, after concerns grew about its role in pushing for the country’s presidential election to be delayed by six weeks.
The military faced accusations of interference when the chairman of the electoral commission, Attahiru Jega, revealed that the office of the National Security Advisor had written to him saying that unless he delayed the Feb. 14 election, it could not guarantee security.
It urged a six-week delay to enable the military to contain the Islamist Boko Haram insurgency in the northeast of the country.
On Wednesday, defence spokesman Major-General Chris Olukolade noted “the palpable tension being generated ... with regards to the roles of the Nigerian military in the ongoing political activities and recent developments, especially in relation to electioneering.”
“It is important to reassure Nigerians that the military will remain professional, apolitical and non-partisan in all operations ... related to (elections),” he said in a statement.
Fears that Nigeria’s military, which has ruled the country for more than half of the period since independence from Britain in 1960, may be slipping back into old habits have spooked investors and hit the ailing naira currency at a time when clouds were already gathering over Africa’s top economy because of the fall in world oil prices.
There have also been reports in the local press that the military colluded with the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) to try to influence last year’s governorship election in Ekiti state, a claim the military has not directly commented on.
Further delays to or a cancellation of the presidential election, now set for March 28, could trigger unrest, especially in opposition strongholds in the largely Muslim north.
Addressing local journalists in a televised interview on Wednesday, President Goodluck Jonathan said “some very dangerous signals” on security meant the election had to be delayed. He rejected claims by the opposition that his party was trying to scupper the vote.
“A lot of people are using the delay in the elections to misinform people and create suspicion,” he said.
Nigerian dealers pulled the plug on electronic trading in the naira on Wednesday after the currency slid past 200 to the dollar on fears the postponement of the election could trigger a constitutional crisis.
Nigeria’s decision to delay the poll on the advice of security forces was a worrying echo for some of the annulment of 1993’s democratic vote by a military government.
Jonathan’s PDP had pushed for a delay, while his main opponent, Muhammadu Buhari of the opposition All Progressives Congress (APC), himself a former military ruler, had called for the vote go ahead on time, arguing that a six-year old insurgency was hardly going to be solved in six weeks.
But the PDP also argued that the commission was not ready because millions of voters had not picked up their ID cards.
“It’s better that elections are done so that Nigerians will ... believe that the elections are credible,” Jonathan said, defending the delay on grounds that ID cards needed to be distributed. “I want a situation where every Nigerian (who is eligible) can vote.”
On Wednesday, the leader of the APC, Bola Tinubu, a former Lagos governor, was quoted in the local press as saying soldiers had besieged his house in the wealthy, palm-lined suburb of Ikoyi.
“Jonathan’s government has through the service chiefs staged a coup against Nigerians and the constitution and now wants to silence his critics. I will not be muzzled through the barrel of the gun,” they quoted him as saying.
A spokesman for Tinubu did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The military also did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the alleged siege.
The military has faced criticism of its failure to quell the Boko Haram insurgency, although Jonathan suggested on Wednesday that better cooperation from neighbours Chad, Niger and Cameroon could be a turning point.
“We’re getting maximum cooperation from the neighbouring countries, which we were never getting before,” he said, adding that there would be a significant improvement in security in the troubled northeast “in the next four weeks”.
Chadian soldiers killed 13 fighters from Boko Haram in a battle in the Nigerian town of Gambaru on Wednesday, the Chadian army said in a statement.
Editing by Giles Elgood