, ABUJA, Apr 3 – Nigeria postponed Saturday\’s parliamentary polls hours after they were to begin amid widespread organisational problems, an ominous start to a crucial vote period in Africa\’s most populous nation.
The parliament vote, now set for Monday, was to be the first of three landmark polls this month seen as a critical test of whether Nigeria can organise a credible ballot after a series of flawed and violent elections.
Electoral commission chief Attahiru Jega announced the postponement at around midday, calling it an "emergency."
Materials and personnel had not arrived at many polling stations throughout the country, leading Jega to call the delay, which drew harsh criticism from rights activists and politicians, as well as anger from voters.
Jega said a vendor due to deliver material failed to so on time. The vendor had blamed disruptions in air transport due in part to the emergency in Japan, Jega told journalists.
The recently installed electoral commission headed by Jega, a respected academic, had raised hopes that the vote would be better conducted this time. President Goodluck Jonathan has repeatedly promised a free and fair election.
Presidential elections are due to follow the parliamentary ballot on April 9, while governorship and state assembly polls are due on April 16 in Africa\’s largest oil producer.
Jonathan, the favourite in the April 9 vote, said he regretted the postponement, but asked for patience to allow for a credible poll. His polling place in his home state of Bayelsa was among those that did not function.
"If we must do something, it is better to delay and do it well," Jonathan said in a statement.
Rights activists and politicians called the postponement a national disgrace, while some suggested there had been sabotage.
Others questioned why Jega signaled in an address to the nation on Friday that preparations were on course.
The head of observers from the Commonwealth, former Botswana president Festus Mogae, said in a statement "we are naturally very disappointed" and called for calm.
While polling places opened relatively on time in some areas of the country, materials had not even arrived in many others.
The postponement drew anger from voters, many of whom had been waiting outside polling stations since early in the morning.
At one polling place in Lagos, voting was still going on after the postponement was announced since electoral workers there were not yet told.
"Jega is already a failure," said Musa Goji, a carpenter in the central city of Jos, where crowds of people waited for polling stations to open, marking their spots with everything from beer cans to mangoes.
"He should cover his face in shame and not lie to us."
The ruling Peoples Democratic Party controls a comfortable majority of seats in the parliament, but some analysts say the vote — when it is held — could significantly loosen its grip.
Some 73.5 million people have registered to vote in Nigeria, whose total population has been estimated at some 150 million, divided roughly in half between Christians and Muslims.
Violence has occurred in the run-up to the polls, including bomb blasts and politically related clashes.
On Saturday, a military task force in the oil-producing Niger Delta region — notorious for election-linked violence in the past — said one of its boats came under fire in Bayelsa state just before 9:00 am and shot back, killing one suspect.
It said the other suspects, who had been in two speedboats, escaped after abandoning their boats.
The task force said in a statement it "believes that the suspects might have been hired by certain people to subvert the electoral process." It said dynamite and ammunition were recovered.
The eve of the vote on Friday saw suspected Islamist sect members attack a police station with explosives in northern Nigeria, though it was unclear whether anyone was killed.