Bottom Line Up Front:

• On February 7, Nigeria’s election commission announced a six-week postponement of the country’s tightly-contested presidential election (along with other federal and state polls); the decision came after the Nigerian military warned that it could not guarantee voter security in the four northeastern states hit hardest by the Boko Haram insurgency

• As of February 5, only 45 million of 68 million voter cards had been distributed; most of the shortfall was in southern states loyal to the incumbent, President Goodluck Jonathan, suggesting the government may also have postponed the poll to ensure its constituencies are able to vote

• The postponement has heightened tensions between Jonathan supporters and those of his main rival, Muhammadu Buhari, raising fears of election-related violence of the kind that marred the previous election in 2011

• Neighboring countries, including Cameroon and Chad, have volunteered troops to fight Boko Haram, and the military has promised to defeat the insurgency by March 28

• If the Nigerian military fails to curb Boko Haram’s violence—and after two years of fighting, the odds of success are low—Nigeria will likely plunge into one of its worst crises yet.

On February 7, Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) announced that the country’s presidential and parliamentary elections, originally scheduled for February 14, would be postponed until March 28, while the gubernatorial and state legislative elections scheduled for February 28 would be held April 11.

The decision was taken at the urging of the security services which not could not guarantee the safety of election officials and voters in four northeastern states—Borno, Yobe, Adamawa, and Gombe—where the Boko Haram insurgency is most active. INEC also advised that the deployment of military forces during the coming weeks to operations currently underway against the militants meant that there would be insufficient personnel to lend the security assistance normally provided throughout Nigeria to police and other civilian authorities during election periods.

The contest between incumbent President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan and onetime military dictator Muhammadu Buhari is the most competitive presidential race since civilian rule was reestablished in 1999. The stakes could not be higher given the security threatshumanitarian crises, and financial pressures buffeting Africa’s biggest economy—not to mention the regional, ethnic, and religious fissures embodied by the two candidates.

The security concerns cited by the electoral commission for delaying the vote are, at face value, valid. Numerous local government areas in northeastern Nigeria are either under the control of Boko Haram or otherwise rendered unsafe, making it nearly impossible to organize voting across the country. Whether satisfactory arrangements can be made for displaced persons to vote is questionable. In addition, millions of voters could potentially be deterred from voting by fear of terror attacks.

If previous voting patterns are any indication, the voters most likely to be disenfranchised by the current security situation in the northern part of the country are would-be supporters of Buhari. Thus, during his remarks, the INEC chief expressed hope that the rescheduling will allow more time for security services to ensure the environment needed for a safe and peaceful vote. Even if the security situation in north does improve, however, postponement of the elections may still be devastating to Buhari’s hopes, as he is widely thought to lack the financial resources required to contest an extended election campaign. There is real danger that, should Buhari lose, his supporters could refuse to recognize the legitimacy of the election.

Although the decision to postpone was couched in security terms, INEC admitted that it was far behind in its distribution of permanent voter cards (PVCs), which are now be required for voting, to registered citizens. As of this past Thursday, only some 45 million out of the 68 million biometric identification documents that needed to be delivered had been—leaving roughly one-third of the electorate without the key to exercising their rights. Interestingly, though, some of the highest distribution rates have been in areas hardest hit by the insurgency.

The PVC distribution rates are probably the product of exceedingly poor logistics rather than manipulation by the incumbent People’s Democratic Party (PDP), since the states with higher distribution rates were all ones which the PDP lost in the last election, while it won wide majorities among the voters in both Lagos and Ogun, which are currently bereft of their papers.

The postponement of the upcoming vote, however justified, will exacerbate an already tense political climate. The chairman of the main Nigerian opposition party, the All Progressives Congress (APC), while appealing to supporters to desist from violence, nonetheless called the postponement “highly provocative.” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry issued a statement expressing “deep disappointment” in the decision to postpone.

Nevertheless, the reasons for the delay are weighty, and the electoral commission acted within its legal authority. If Nigerian authorities use the time to work with neighboring countries to significantly degrade the threat posed by Boko Haram as well as to improve the processes for administering the actual elections—and the voters’ confidence in the fairness and transparency of those systems—then the waiting period may prove to be a turning point for the nation’s stability and democratic future.

If, however, they fail to seize that opportunity, the crisis into which Africa’s most populous country could plunge may prove far greater than any of the present risks they presumably just tried to dodge.