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Nigerian Police provide security in Abuja, Nigeria, Saturday, Feb. 7, 2015, as people demonstrate against the possible postponement of the Nigerian elections. Civil rights groups staged a small protest Saturday against any proposed postponement.

Olamikan Gbemiga/The Associated Press

Nigeria has taken an ominous lurch back toward its military past, reviving the power of its military bosses by postponing a crucial election because of their sudden refusal to provide security for the vote.

Under intense pressure from the army and security forces, Nigeria's electoral commission has agreed to a six-week postponement of its presidential election to allow a new military operation against the Boko Haram rebellion. The move has triggered alarm bells around the world, provoking widespread fears that Nigeria will keep delaying or even cancelling its elections – a move that could destroy its fragile democracy.

Nigeria is Africa's biggest economy and most populous country, and the fate of its democracy is hugely important for the rest of Africa. It had been ruled by military dictators for nearly all of a 33-year period from 1966 to 1999, before democracy was restored. Its election next week had been the first real chance of an opposition election victory in many decades. Polls had shown that the race was a dead heat, with both sides at 42 per cent. But the question now is whether Nigeria's military is unwilling to accept a loss by the ruling party of President Goodluck Jonathan, and whether it is now demanding a bigger share of political power again.

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The election delay, virtually dictated by the military and security chiefs, seems to be a sign of the army's growing ambitions. It is also a major boost for the faltering campaign of Mr. Jonathan. Because of its greater financial resources, the ruling party can use the extra time to outspend the opposition and strike deals with regional power-brokers who can deliver blocs of votes.

The decision to postpone the election from Feb. 14 to March 28, announced in an extraordinary late-night news conference in Nigeria's capital on Saturday night, was greeted on Sunday by street protests and strong denunciations from opposition parties and civil-society groups.

Muhammadu Buhari, leader of the main opposition party, had been convinced he would win the election, and he has fought hard against any delay. His party, the All Progressives Congress, reacted to the delay by calling it "a major setback for Nigerian democracy."

The international reaction was equally harsh. "The United States is deeply disappointed by the decision to postpone Nigeria's presidential election," said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in a swift reaction to the delay.

"Political interference with the Independent National Electoral Commission is unacceptable, and it is critical that the government not use security concerns as a pretext for impeding the democratic process," Mr. Kerry said.

"The international community will be watching closely as the Nigerian government prepares for elections on the newly scheduled dates. The United States underscores the importance of ensuring that there are no further delays."

Britain's Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond issued a similar statement of concern about the election delay. "The security situation should not be used as a reason to deny the Nigerian people from exercising their democratic rights," he said.

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To emphasize the U.S. stake in the elections, Mr. Kerry had made an unusual trip to Nigeria on Jan. 25, asking that the elections be held on time. But even then, Mr. Jonathan refused to give him any commitment. Instead of reaffirming the election date, the Nigerian President emphasized the legal requirement for a presidential inauguration by May 29.

The official reason for the election delay was baffling. The Nigerian military and other security forces, which have been fighting the Boko Haram insurgency for the past six years with little success, announced bluntly that they cannot provide security for the Feb. 14 election because they will be "concentrating" on a military operation against Boko Haram. This operation will take "at least six weeks," according to the electoral commission's summary of what it was told by the security chiefs.

"The security agencies reiterated that they will be concentrating their attention to the insurgency and may not be able to play its traditional role in providing security during the elections," said Attahiru Jega, chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission, in his late-night announcement.

"The advice by the security chiefs is that it will be impossible to secure elections while a military operation is going on," he said. "The security agencies have told us that they can restore normalcy within six weeks. … Let's keep hope alive."

With the military refusing to provide security for the voting process on Feb. 14, it would have been "unconscionable" to send election personnel and voters to the voting stations, Mr. Jega said.

Reaction from ordinary Nigerians was skeptical. On social media, Nigerians questioned why the military would announce a major operation against Boko Haram at the exact time of a scheduled election. They expressed doubt that the military could suddenly defeat Boko Haram in six weeks, after failing to defeat the Islamist radical militia over the past six years, and they asked whether the army would insist on further delays.

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One coalition of civil-society groups said the military interference in the election "appeared contrived to truncate the democratic process."

At his news conference on Saturday night, Mr. Jega said his electoral commission was "substantially ready" for a Feb. 14 election. For weeks, it has been insisting it is prepared for the election, rejecting the idea of a delay. But shadowy forces have been financing a campaign for an election delay. Anonymous brochures, accompanied by T-shirts and caps, have appeared in the streets of Abuja, demanding a 60-day delay. The national security adviser, Sambo Dasuki, has also called for an election delay.

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