Update: Nigeria delays presidential election today: Terrorism, death threats, and Africa's largest country at the brink

Update from AP:

Nigerians awakened on Saturday to find the presidential election delayed a week until Feb. 23 because of what the electoral commission called unspecified "challenges."

The top candidates condemned the decision and blamed each other but appealed to Africa's largest democracy for calm, while they rushed back to the capital to learn more about what went wrong.

The postponement was announced a mere five hours before the polls were to open. The decision is a costly one, and authorities now must decide what to do with already delivered voting materials in a tense atmosphere where some electoral facilities in recent days have been torched.

Internal civil strife is coming to a boiling point this weekend as the Nigerian people head to the polls to vote for a president.  Incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari's commitment to a free and fair election must be seriously questioned.  On February 5, 2019, a Nigerian governor and poster boy of Buhari's ruling party warned that foreign nationals who sought to intervene in the February 16, 2019, Nigerian presidential election would return "in body bags."  The death threat was delivered on prime-time Nigerian television.

Willie Obiano, the governor of Anambra, a predominately Igbo state, publicly told his supporters to "kill, kill, kill" anyone who votes for the opposition party, PDP, a statement he has since attempted to retract.  It was another early warning that a free and fair Nigerian presidential election is in peril.  Any believer in the imperative of abiding by the democratic will of the people must have as a paramount interest the desire to ensure that the Nigerian elections are free and fair, as guaranteed by Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and our own Constitution.

In Buhari's Nigeria, power has become concentrated in the presidency without full checks and balances or a fully free press.  Indeed, President Buhari just weeks ahead of the election unconstitutionally replaced the head of the Nigerian Supreme Court with a pliable toady.  Also, Pres. Buhari in the past few weeks has appointed his niece as the chairperson of the organization that tallies and reports election results.  She has never previously held a government position and appears to have no credentials for the job than her bloodline.  These roles are the ultimate arbiter of Nigerian election results.

Nigeria is the largest country in Africa, with by far the largest reserves of oil and gas on the continent.  Nigeria also is the home of Africa's most feared and ruthless radical Islamist terrorist group.  Boko Haram became infamous throughout the world for the appalling Chibok kidnapping of 200 schoolgirls in 2014.  These schoolchildren are believed to have been used as sex slaves and forced into parenting children by their adult Boko Haram captors.  Over 100 remain in captivity — despite the campaign promises of their return by Buhari, a former military dictator who was elected in 2015.  Over 20,000 Nigerians have been slaughtered by Boko Haram, many since Pres. Buhari proclaimed the group's defeat. 

Mhammadu Buhari (via U.S. State Department).

In the last few years, roving militias have invaded the Middle Belt and slaughtered Christian farmers who are primarily ethnic Yoruba, with Igbo, Ijaw, and Ibibio also being murdered without repercussions to the south and southeast.  The number of killings and displacements by the roving herdsmen militias in the Middle Belt is estimated to be over 250,000 to 2 million.  The Buhari administration has stood silent and made no move to halt these murderous militias and their humanitarian and economic devastation.  The displacement of these Middle Belt citizens, who are afraid to return to their homes, seems strategically calculated to disrupt their ability to vote against Pres. Buhari and his ruling party, as Nigerian law requires polling only in the place of residence.

In sum, all the lights on the dashboard are flashing, and the United States must pay attention to this potential crisis.  The reality exists that massive electoral fraud may taint the Nigerian presidential election today and risk unprecedented civil strife among 200 million Nigerians if the United States plays spectator and resists firm diplomatic overtures and sanctions if the current administration refuses to hand over the reins of power following a peaceful, fair and corruption-free election.

In 2015, a similar, but less tense specter hung over Nigeria's presidential election between incumbent Goodluck Jonathan and Mr. Buhari.  No Nigerian incumbent had ever previously left office peacefully after an electoral defeat.  Secretary of State John Kerry was dispatched by President Obama to Nigeria on the eve of the election in a move that was widely seen as elevating Gen. Buhari as the "chosen" candidate.  The 2015 elections were viewed as credible, and the incumbent, Goodluck Jonathan, rebuffed clamor from his coterie to resist acquiescence to Mr. Buhari's victory.  This was a first in Nigerian history. 

In the same spirit, based upon the urgings of Nigerian groups, including the group known as "We the People of Nigeria" and others, secretary of state Mike Pompeo spoke directly to the Nigerian presidential candidates, Pres. Buhari of the ruling APC Party and former vice president Atiku Abubakar of the PDP Party, to insist to them that the election must be fair and free from violence.  Thusly, the Trump administration has thankfully joined the international community in expressing its serious concern for the bona fides of the 2019 Nigerian presidential election under Pres. Buhari's watch — which includes an extremely stern message of warning to the Buhari administration from the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court in The Hague late last week. 

A free and fair election will vaccinate Nigeria against terrorism and domestic disorder and will advance its embryonic democracy another step.  When citizens are denied a peaceful political channel to voice and redress their grievances, they commonly turn to violence or other devastatingly destructive conduct.  The results have been uniformly tragic and will be expensive for the United States in the form of increased military and humanitarian aid.  It is not beyond the pale to suggest that the geo-strategic area of West Africa will be imperiled if the upcoming election erupts in long simmering ethnic and religious bloodshed.

Nigeria is sitting on a powder keg.  It is not hard to imagine what will happen if the election today is manipulated in favor of the incumbent.  The entire Nigerian nation of 200 million people could explode in mayhem and violence.  Refugees on a scale that dwarfs the Arab Spring could wreak havoc beyond the African continent.  All of West Africa could be convulsed.  A terrible example could be set for democracy everywhere.

The Trump administration has often stood taller and firmer than its predecessor in addressing geopolitical problems with fairness and strength.  It must do so again when it comes to Nigeria's elections, beginning with the presidential poll today.  Complacency in these circumstances would be injudicious.  The communication from Secretary Pompeo is a good start that should be applauded and followed up with similar resolve to prevent the possible disintegration of Africa's heart and soul.

W. Bruce DelValle is a founder and principal shareholder of Fein & DelValle PLLC, a commercial and civil litigation firm with a national client base.