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Questions Remain as Nigeria’s Northeast Reacts to Vote Delay

Police provide security as people demonstrate in Abuja, Nigeria, against the postponement of Nigerian elections, Feb. 7, 2015.

Police provide security as people demonstrate in Abuja, Nigeria, against the postponement of Nigerian elections, Feb. 7, 2015.

Nigeria’s national elections have been postponed until March 28 due to security concerns affecting a close presidential race and the inability of millions of people to cast ballots.

The election commission made the call Saturday in hopes the six-week delay will allow a new regional military force to subdue militant group Boko Haram ahead of the ballot. Many people who fled the insurgency say they are not prepared to vote - and cannot go home.

Millam Umoru owns little more than the hoe he uses to till a dry patch of earth. Along with his children, he fled the town of Madagali earlier last year when Boko Haram attacked it. The insurgents killed his mother-in-law and sister-in-law when they overran the town in northern Adamawa State. Now he is part of a group of displaced people who farm a plot of land that belongs to a local chief on the outskirts of the state capital, Yola.

Hundreds of thousands of people like Umoru now live in and around this city, huddling in camps or living in the bush. Nigeria’s election commission announced it would delay the presidential ballot to give the military more time to chase out Boko Haram and secure the northeast.

Umoru said displaced people like him are largely unprepared to vote. He said many fled their homes without their voter cards but that people who brought them along probably will vote.

Dauda Bello is an imam and member of the local interfaith group, the Adamawa Peace Initiative, who fled the town of Mubi when insurgents overran it last year. He said displaced people have more pressing things to worry about.

“Given those who are given their voters card or who have not received their cards before may not be voting because their major concern now is food and shelter," said Bello. "You don’t have food and you’re hungry; how can you go and join the queue and vote?”

The Peace Initiative estimates about 270,000 displaced people live in Yola, but Bello said that number likely is much higher.

Like most of Nigeria’s northern half, Adamawa State is seen as likely to support leading opposition candidate Muhammadu Buhari in the presidential vote.

Buhari, who is running against incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan, has expressed skepticism at the military’s claim that it can stop Boko Haram’s years-long insurgency in just six weeks. Jonathan’s spokesman said the delay is necessary to ensure the election is credible and as many people as possible can vote.

Moses Zaruwa said fear will keep many people from moving back to towns retaken by Boko Haram. An administrator at the Adamawa State University in Mubi, he has seen the burned churches and shattered homes that Boko Haram leaves behind after occupying a town.

“It’s like a sign, it’s like a signal. It is you who is being persecuted. So, I don’t expect people to just run back to Mubi just like that, except where there is an assurance where their lives and properties will be protected,” said Zaruwa.

Nigeria’s election commission says it plans to distribute voter cards to displaced people and set up polling centers near their camps. Whether that will get people out to vote on March 28 remains to be seen.