The Nigerian government was supposed to hold presidential elections this past weekend, which presented voters with the dispiriting choice of keeping a lousy incumbent or returning to power a former autocratic leader. Now they will have to wait at least six weeks to cast votes.

The Nigerian election commission said earlier this month that it had pushed back the vote until at least March 28, after the country’s security chiefs warned that they could not guarantee the safety of voters in northeastern areas of the country where Boko Haram, the extremist militant group, captured international attention last spring when it abducted hundreds of schoolgirls. On Friday, Boko Haram fighters attacked a village in neighboring Chad for the first time, an alarming sign of the group’s expanding strength in a region that also includes areas of Cameroon and Niger.

Any argument to delay the vote might be more credible if President Goodluck Jonathan’s government had not spent much of the past year playing down the threat posed by the militants and if there were a reasonable expectation that the country’s weak military has the ability to improve security in a matter of weeks.

It appears more likely Mr. Jonathan grew alarmed by the surging appeal of Muhammadu Buhari, a former military ruler who has vowed to crack down on Boko Haram. By dragging out the race, Mr. Jonathan stands to deplete his rival’s campaign coffers, while he continues to use state funds and institutions to bankroll his own.

That Mr. Buhari, who helped launch a coup against a democratically elected government in 1983 and ruled until late 1985, has emerged as potential winner is more of an indictment of Mr. Jonathan’s dismal rule than a recognition of the former military chief’s appeal.

Nigerian voters have grown increasingly worried about the stunning rise of Boko Haram, which has committed terrorist atrocities including bombings.

The abductions and attacks by the group have exposed the weaknesses of Nigeria’s armed forces and the dysfunction of the government. Although Mr. Jonathan’s government has in the past been less than enthusiastic, and at times obstructive, in response to offers of American and European aid, he appears to be growing increasingly worried. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal last week, he said he would welcome American troops to fight the insurgency.

Beyond security matters, entrenched corruption and the government’s inability to diversify its economy as the price of oil, the country’s financial bedrock, has fallen have also caused Nigerians to look for new leadership. Nigeria, the most populous nation in Africa, and a relatively young democracy, cannot afford an electoral crisis. That would only set back the faltering effort to reassert government control in districts where Boko Haram is sowing terror. The security forces may not be able to safeguard many districts on Election Day. But postponement is very likely to make the security threat worse.


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