Nigeria has postponed Saturday’s crucial state elections amid wrangling over a presidential vote that opposition parties claim was rigged.
The electoral commission emerged from an hours-long meeting on Wednesday night to announce it was pushing back polls to elect powerful state governors by a week.
The commission attributed the delay to problems with reconfiguring a digital voting system that had been the source of rancour and international criticism after it failed to perform as promised in the presidential elections in Africa’s most populous country on 25 February.
Earlier on Wednesday the court of appeal rejected a request by the opposition People’s Democratic party (PDP) and the Labour party to inspect the digital tablets used to screen voters and transmit results from polling stations.
The electoral commission said that while the ruling made it possible for it to prepare the tablets for state elections, the ruling had come “far too late”.
“We thank Nigerians and friends of Nigeria for their understanding as we continue to deal with these difficult issues,” it said in a statement.
Labour and the PDP have alleged that the failure to transmit results from many polling stations to a much-heralded public website until days after the presidential polling day allowed the ruling All Progressives Congress party to collude with electoral commission officials to manipulate results.
They are preparing for a rerun in court of the three-way battle electrified by Peter Obi’s outsider campaign. The APC candidate, Bola Tinubu, won with fewer than 9m votes after the country’s lowest ever electoral turnout.
On Monday the PDP presidential candidate, Atiku Abubakar, led hundreds of supporters in a march to the electoral commission’s headquarters in Abuja. Before the electoral commission decision on Wednesday, Obi cancelled planned governorship campaigning, saying he remained committed to the “mission of retrieving our mandate”.
The electoral commission has said it plans to use the same public website that has been criticised by international observers for its previous failure. They concluded the presidential election fell short of Nigerians’ expectations, as results were meant to be uploaded to the website directly from polling stations on polling day. However, observers have not alleged fraud as they had after some previous Nigerian elections.
The Labour party separately told the Guardian its voters faced being intimidated at polling stations in the state elections. The party’s candidate for Lagos governor said party volunteers would “stand up and defend” supporters and resist any attempts to suppress votes for him.
The PDP and Labour have seized on what became a chaotic count after the failures with the digital voting system, as well as evidence of intimidation and voter suppression by ruling party agents at polling stations. One independent observer, the non-profit Yiaga Africa, reported cases of intimidation at as many as one in 20 polling stations. It is unclear how much these may have affected results.
The APC denies manipulating results and has suggested its supporters were themselves intimidated in Obi strongholds.
Nigeria will elect governors in 28 of its 36 states, as well as state assembly members, with fierce contests expected in cities in which Obi did well in the presidential vote, such as Lagos and the capital, Abuja. In both of these he used a campaign built on social media to upset the odds by winning votes with a promise to tackle corruption.
Particular focus will fall on Lagos, home to 20 million people, thriving technology and arts sectors and an economy that would be ninth-largest in Africa were it a country. It is also the home town of Tinubu, who is considered the “godfather” of the city he used to govern and is said to be desperate to ensure his party maintains power of it.
Were he to lose, assuming he is sworn in as president, he would be the first sitting Nigerian president not to control his home state.
Labour’s Gbadebo Rhodes-Vivour, a 40-year-old architect, is taking on the incumbent APC governor, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, who has launched a charm offensive in Lagos in recent weeks including the release of vehicles impounded for minor traffic offences.
Rhodes-Vivour said the party would send out a lot more people than on presidential polling day to monitor the process and provide security.
Joseph Essien, 47, an Obi-supporting driver in Lagos, criticised the police over the presidential election. “They didn’t come to [voters’] rescue when needed,” he said. “Policemen were there and they did nothing so you expect people to go again and not defend themselves?”
Joana Andrew, 46, an APC supporter who has been selling snacks outside Tinubu’s high-walled Lagos compound, said Sanwo-Olu had a “brighter chance” of winning the state than Tinubu had during the presidential voting. “The people who come out to vote for Obi, they love coming out for the presidency – when it comes for governorship they withdraw,” she said.