LAGOS, Nigeria – LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) — Nigeria's electoral commission asked Sunday to delay the upcoming presidential election in Africa's most populous nation by several months, warning that the January poll date wouldn't give workers enough time to conduct a new voter registration drive.
The request comes as President Goodluck Jonathan faces a growing political challenge from within Nigeria's ruling party, one that highlights the religious divisions in the oil-rich nation.
The Independent National Electoral Commission's request came the day after Jonathan formally launched his presidential bid. Less than two weeks ago, the commission announced a Jan. 22 presidential contest, scheduled between a Jan. 15 election for the National Assembly and a Jan. 29 election for state offices.
Commission spokesman Kayode Idowu said Sunday that the delay was needed so that workers would have enough time to register an estimated 70 million eligible voters in Nigeria. As of now, the commission has yet to even hire the 50,000 workers needed to man polling sites on election day, nor has it ordered the computer equipment it needs to register voters.
"We will be engaging the stakeholders to see if there's a possibility of more time," Idowu told The Associated Press.
The commission had planned to hold a two-week registration drive beginning Nov. 1, giving it little time to prepare.
A statement issued by the commission said it would hold "sacrosanct" a planned May 29 inauguration date for winners. That means an election could be held in April and still meet the requirements of a newly passed election law, said Innocent Chukwuma, a Nigerian poll monitor now teaching at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.
The commission likely would need the blessing of lawmakers to change the dates, though it wasn't immediately clear what was needed to change the election timetable.
While allowing more time for election workers to perhaps hold a credible election in a country plagued by corrupt ballot-box behavior, Chukwuma said it may create doubts in the public's mind about the commission's planning.
"People's minds will start getting fixed to that date and they will start judging (the commission) on whether they are keeping to their words or not," the professor said. "I thought this was something they should have addressed from inception when the popular opinion was the January date was too soon."
Nigeria, one of the largest crude oil suppliers to the U.S., became a democracy through a presidential election in 1999, but its polls remained mired in vote-rigging, violence and political thuggery. International observers called the 2007 election of President Umaru Yar'Adua rigged, even though it represented the first civilian-to-civilian transfer of power in the nation's history.
The country's 2011 election continues to draw more challengers for Jonathan in the ruling People's Democratic Party primaries. Former National Security Adviser Aliyu Gusau resigned his position on Friday and planned to pick up a nomination form for the party, spokesman Adekunle Adebisi said Sunday. Gusau, a retired Army general, is a powerful, behind-the-scenes player in Nigeria's military and security agencies.
The entry of Gusau into the presidential primary adds another challenge for Jonathan. An unwritten power-sharing agreement within the ruling party calls for the presidency to alternate between candidates from Nigeria's mainly Christian south and Muslim north.
Jonathan, a Christian from the country's south, became president after the May 5 death of Yar'Adua, a Muslim from the north. Since Yar'Adua died while still in his first term, some leaders in the north believe their region has another term due to them.
Gusau, former military dictator Ibrahim Babangida and former vice president Atiku Abubakar — all Muslims from the north — say they'll seek the ruling party's nomination. That sets up what could be a fierce fight through the party's primaries.
Jonathan may be feeling some of that pressure already. On Sunday, he abruptly canceled a trip to New York, even though he was scheduled to attend the United Nations General Assembly and speak at Columbia University. Jonathan's office gave no explanation for canceling the trip.
Associated Press Writer Bashir Adigun reported from Abuja, Nigeria.