Only days before the first of Nigeria's three April elections, the man in charge of the polls assured the oil-rich nation it was "well-prepared and well-positioned" to avoid the missteps of the young democracy's past.
Now, Independent National Electoral Commission chairman Attahiru Jega faces increasing criticism as he announced Sunday a week postponement of all elections after his agency failed to bring ballot papers and result sheets to the past weekend's scheduled poll. Whether voting proceeds smoothly starting this coming Saturday could determine the admired academic's future, as well as that of the nation.
"It is tragic that by sheer incompetence, (the election commission) has turned a moment of celebration to a flash of queasy foreboding for an enthusiastic nation," a front-page editorial by The Punch newspaper read Sunday.
It added: "Nigeria may be flying blind into an uncertain future."
The electoral commission announced it would hold the country's election for the National Assembly on Saturday. Under the new schedule, the country's crucial presidential poll will be held April 19, while gubernatorial and local elections will be held April 26.
Jega previously just postponed the National Assembly election to Monday, drawing criticism. In a statement Sunday, the commission said it met with political parties and civil organizations to discuss how to reschedule the elections.
"Your sacrifices are not lost on the commission and we are even more determined now to ensure that the 2011 elections are free, fair and credible," the statement read.
Jega, 54, took over Nigeria's long-troubled election agency last year, promising to work toward a free and fair election in Africa's most populous nation. To that end, he oversaw a more than $230 million voter registration drive aimed at eliminating the fraud that permeated the country's 2007 election. The agency says it registered 73.5 million people.
The commission "is now well-prepared and well-positioned to conduct elections which will go a long way to satisfy the aspiration of Nigerians for free, fair and credible elections," Jega promised Tuesday during a news conference. "We have prepared adequately in terms of logistics preparations, in terms the training of our staff and in terms of effective liaison with security agencies in order to provide security before, during and after the elections."
Yet as this past Saturday's failed election began, ballot papers and tally sheets were missing from many areas in a nation twice the size of California. Some election officials never left their distribution centers. Some voters arrived at polling sites and discovered their names were missing from the register, despite being issued electoral identification cards.
Jega halted the election midday Saturday, but not before some voters began casting ballots, adding to the confusion.
International observers on hand for the election offered tepid support for Jega, saying they hoped for no other impediments to the polls.
"We are naturally very disappointed," a Saturday statement from the Commonwealth Observer Group read. "We fully understand and sympathize with the frustration felt by the Nigerian people as a result."
Political parties, however, raged at the delay. The ruling People's Democratic Party described the postponement as an "act of negligence." The Action Congress of Nigeria, a strong opposition party, warned a Monday election would ensure it could not access the cash necessary to "remobilize" its operatives _ a hint at how elections operate in a country considered by analysts to be one of the world's most corrupt.
In newspapers Sunday, some reports suggested sabotage as the culprit for the missing ballots and tally sheets. Jega himself blamed the ballot printers, saying they told him they couldn't fly the materials into the country. One headline shouted that the election represented a "national shame."
However, Jega stopped the flawed election. Maurice Iwu, Jega's predecessor who handled the flawed 2007 elections, allowed polls to continue despite outlandish rigging and operational problems.
Though angry, Nigerians largely hold out hope that Jega's decision to halt Saturday's election means change might be possible. Monday will be the true test before Saturday's presidential election.
"There is no doubt that few African countries have more opportunities than Nigeria, but few have experienced greater trauma in attempts to build a sustainable democracy," The Punch editorial read Sunday. "The potential for confusion is high, but so too are hopes that it can be avoided."
Bashir Adigun in Abuja, Nigeria contributed to this report.