ABUJA, Feb 8, 2015 (AFP) - 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 Saturday 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 (INEC).
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 United States said it was "deeply disappointed" by the delay, with US 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.
Troops from Nigeria, backed by soldiers from Chad, Cameroon and Niger, have recently begun a joint fightback against Boko Haram as the conflict has spilled beyond Nigeria's borders.
Since the turn of the year, the militant group has increased the intensity of its campaign, in part to further undermine the democratic process, which it views as un-Islamic.
Jega has previously conceded that voting would not go ahead in areas under Islamist control, raising questions about whether those displaced by the violence would be able to vote.
The insurgency has killed at least 13,000 people and pushed more than a million from their homes since 2009.
The APC has said the result of the election will come into question if the huge numbers of voters made homeless by the violence are disenfranchised.
Jega said national security adviser Sambo Dasuki and the country's defence chiefs were unanimous in agreement that "security cannot be guaranteed" on February 14.
The INEC's concerns about security were not confined to the northeast where the fighting is concentrated, he added.
Political commentator Chris Ngwodo said the argument about not having troops on hand for the election was erroneous, as the police and national civil defence corps provide security on polling day.
Jega had also been under pressure to delay the election because of increased concerns over the distribution of permanent voter cards to 68.8 million registered electors.
As of Thursday, he said that 45,829,808 or 66.58 percent of the cards had been distributed and that INEC was "substantially ready for the general election as scheduled".
But advice since then had left it in no doubt that "it would be unconscionable to deploy personnel and voters" without adequate security, he told a news conference in Abuja.
Would six-week delay help?
Election monitors, including from the West African bloc ECOWAS and the European Union, are already on the ground and the international community has urged Nigeria to hold the election.
Kerry had earlier suggested a link between peaceful and timely voting and further US help for the counter-insurgency.
Dimolo said the delay would help with the logistics of distributing voters cards and could possibly cool heads in the process.
But she said postponing could also prompt a violent reaction from angered opposition supporters, who are hoping to inflict a defeat on the PDP for the first time in 16 years. In 2011, some 1,000 people were killed in post-poll rioting and there have been fears of a repeat.
Ryan Cummings, chief Africa analyst at Red24 risk consultants, said there was no guarantee that a planned new regional force would make significant gains against Boko Haram before the end of March.
"To dislodge Boko Haram from all of these areas in a period of six weeks would be an unprecedented feat," he said.