TIME South Africa

South Africa’s State of The Nation Address Starts With a Fistfight, Ends With a Dance

Members of the Economic Freedom Fighters, wearing red uniforms, clash with security forces during South African President's State of the Nation address in Cape Town on Feb. 12, 2015.
Rodger Bosch—AFP/Getty Images Members of the Economic Freedom Fighters, wearing red uniforms, clash with security forces during South African President's State of the Nation address in Cape Town on Feb. 12, 2015.

“For a solid hour last night South Africa resembled a messy, dysfunctional state being held together by the security forces”

At least on some things, South African President Jacob Zuma knows how to deliver. His much-anticipated State of the Nation Address on Thursday night in Cape Town promised a spectacle. The nation got a circus that kept South Africans glued to their TV screens for several hours with scenes of heckling parliamentarians, fistfights on the parliament floor, an opposition party walkout and Zuma’s inappropriate chuckles. There was even a note of spy-craft intrigue: cellphone signals were mysteriously blocked for 20 minutes, preventing journalists from tweeting and filing stories and photos from the venue. The actual content of Zuma’s speech — uninspiring and lacking in content by most assessments — will be forgotten long before the full impact of a precariously divided government is felt on the country and Zuma’s political future. “It was hard to believe that South Africa is a functional democracy,” lamented an editorial in the local Times newspaper. “For a solid hour last night South Africa resembled a messy, dysfunctional state being held together by the security forces.”

Shortly after taking the podium, Zuma was interrupted by a member of the rabble-rousing Economic Freedom Fighters EFF party demanding to know when he would pay back government funds inappropriately used to upgrade his personal residence. Another cheekily asked how the estimated $21 million would be repaid – via cash, electronic transfer, or debit card? Three times they were ruled out of order, part of a carefully choreographed campaign to shame the President. When EFF leader Julius Malema, a one-time Zuma acolyte turned opponent, insisted that he had the right to be heard, the speaker of the house called in the security forces to evict all 25 members of the party. Television screens went momentarily dark. Photographs taken during what cable operators termed a feed interruption show the red jumpsuit-clad EFF members struggling with the guards, some using their trademark red hardhats to bash their way out of security cordons. By the time the television broadcast resumed, not a single member of the EFF, which makes up a very loud six percent of parliament, remained in the room. A few minutes later all 89 members of the official opposition Democratic Alliance walked out in disgust, leaving just the 249 members of Zuma’s African National Congress, and a handful of independents, behind.

MORE South Africa’s State of Nation Address Has Become a Carnival that Avoids Country’s Real Problems

The room thus cleared of naysayers, Zuma returned to the podium an hour after the scheduled start with a triumphant chuckle. He was met with a burst of applause from his African National Congress party faithful, but the content was not worth the accolades. Considering that South Africa is wracked by a power crisis that leaves many parts of the country in the dark for several hours every day, a crumbling economy (the Rand hit a 13-year low the evening before the speech), rising civil unrest, and the highest youth unemployment rate in Africa, Zuma’s speech was disappointingly lacking in urgency and concrete solutions. He did promise a $2 billion bailout of the cash-strapped Eskom power utility, but failed to say where, exactly, the money would come from. He also laid out a nine point plan to “ignite growth and create jobs” that echoed earlier economic strategies that have yet to bear fruit. And he pledged that foreigners would no longer be able to own land in South Africa. It was a sop to rural loyalists, perhaps, but a threat to the foreign investment that is a large part of the country’s economic lifeblood.

If Nelson Mandela’s first Presidential address to South Africans established the ANC as the party of the country’s promising future 20 years ago, Zuma’s state of the nation speech on Feb. 12 firmly cemented it in a dysfunctional present. “What did Zuma’s speech tell me? It tells me we are doomed,” says 34-year-old Cape Town resident Jacques, who asked to go by only his first name. “He didn’t give us any real plan on how we are going to turn the situation around. Already the foreign companies are fleeing, and they are taking the jobs with them.” Jacques at least has a shop assistant job, a relative rarity in a country where one in two South Africans between the age of 18 and 35 are unemployed. Jacques grew up as an ANC supporter, but says that he has lost all respect for the party that took Black South Africans like him from apartheid to equality. “Zuma says he is bringing changes, but only thing the ANC brought us was Mandela,” says Jacques. “I don’t even bother voting anymore.” He is not alone. In the 2014 parliamentary elections, more South Africans chose not to vote than voted for the ANC, a damning demonstration of national frustration. Not that Zuma and members of his party members appear to be doing anything to counter the trend. Instead they celebrated their “victory” over the EFF by dancing the night away on Parliament’s steps. It was a marked reversal for a party that once made history by speaking out of turn, and whose members were carted away by armed security guards for daring to do so.

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TIME South Africa

South Africa’s State of Nation Address Has Become a Carnival that Avoids Country’s Real Problems

The red carpet is laid out at Parliament before the start of the official opening session in Cape Town, South Africa, Feb. 12, 2015.
Schalk van Zuydam—AP The red carpet is laid out at Parliament before the start of the official opening session in Cape Town, South Africa, Feb. 12, 2015.

Red carpets, paparazzi, fistfights and $382,000 gala dinners? Welcome to Jacob Zuma's 6th annual address to South Africans

Social Media can be an effective tool for a president wanting to stay in touch with his citizens. It can also be a potent, and public, amplifier of criticism, as South African President Jacob Zuma learned to his dismay this week. In advance of his annual State of the Nation address Zuma invited the public to suggest themes using the hashtag ‪#‎SONA2015. The most tweeted topic? His resignation:

“Pay Back the Money” is likely to echo through the chambers of Parliament as well, when Zuma takes the stage on the evening of Feb. 12. For the past three years his office has been embroiled in the so-called “Nkandlagate” scandal, in which he has been charged with using $21 million in public funds to remodel his homestead in the rural town of Nkandla. The renovations were billed as “security upgrades” but included a private military hospital, a helicopter landing pad and the installation of a swimming pool. Zuma says that he was unaware of the improvements being made at his residence.

Zuma has avoided Parliament since August, when a rabble-rousing minority party, the Economic Freedom Fighters, heckled him from the stage with questions about when he would repay the money. The speaker of the house was forced to close down the question and answer period and eventually called in the police to subdue the wayward parliamentarians.

The EFF has vowed to repeat their performance at the State of the Nation address, raising fears that security will be called in once again, this time broadcast primetime on national television. South Africa’s Sunday Times newspaper reported that parliamentary security staff had been sent to self-defense classes in preparation for the address. (Parliamentary officials stated that the training was routine.) Meanwhile, the opposition Democratic Alliance has pitched a snit of its own, refusing to attend the traditional post-speech gala cocktail party on the grounds that at a cost of $382,000 it is a waste of taxpayer money. The deputy speaker of the National Assembly responded that he would bill the DA for empty seats, because it was too late to recoup the catering costs.

What would be a yawn-worthy event in any other circumstance has riveted the nation, says Frans Cronje, head of the Institute of Race Relations, South Africa’s oldest think-tank. “For the first time South Africans will watch the state of the nation address. This will beat anything else on TV.” One newspaper has even published rules for a drinking game to go with the speech. The pomp and pageantry of the annual address easily lends itself to ridicule. Complete with a red carpet, paparazzi and parliamentarians dressed to the nines (last year one minister showed up in a pilot’s uniform, even though he didn’t have a license), it is “the closest thing South Africa has to the Academy Awards,” says John Endres, CEO of the Johannesburg-based Good Governance Africa policy group.

But the circus-like atmosphere of this years’ address obscures some of the country’s deeper realities, few of which are likely to be covered in depth during the president’s speech. South Africa’s crippled power utility is struggling to meet demand after 20 years of neglect, resulting in rolling blackouts that are likely to last for several months. The power shortage has hobbled investment and curtailed growth in Africa’s most industrialized economy. On Tuesday the Rand fell to its weakest level in 13 years. While the overall unemployment rate decreased slightly last year, the country’s youth unemployment rate shot up to 52.6 percent, the highest in the continent, according to a new report by Good Governance Africa. “South Africa’s youth remain trapped, dependent on hand-outs and unable to improve their lives,” said Karen Hasse, a GGA researcher. “Without better education and business-friendly policies to encourage economic growth and employment, the country’s youth face a hopeless future.”

Zuma may touch on the power crisis and unemployment — it would be hard not to — but there is little he can do without fundamental policy changes, none of which appear forthcoming, says Cronje. “The government is running out of money to run the country. They can’t borrow any more because the debt to GDP ratio has doubled in five years, and they can’t reduce expenditures,” for fear of inciting unrest. Violent protests have become a near daily occurrence, over jobs, schooling, medical care and illegal immigrants. “For the first time since 1994 (the end of apartheid) we are seeing a real pick up in the hiring of riot control police officers.” The EFF spectacle in parliament is nothing compared to what South Africa has in store, he warns. “I wonder to what extent Zuma understands this or is interested in it. We are not seeing in his policies the types of moves that will draw investment to drive growth.”

Of course, state of the nation addresses are not where policy is made. In the case of South Africa, the occasion has become a platform for a populist party on the rise. “The EFF has nothing to lose,” says Enders, of Good Governance Africa. “They have been very smart at generating attention, and highlighting the weaknesses of the current system.” But what is good for the EFF, may not be so good for South Africa. “It’s a bit of a crisis, actually,” says Enders, speaking of the possibility that security forces may have to be called in if heckling gets out of hand. “Using the police to stop people from speaking in parliament is infringing on freedom of speech. But freedom of speech comes with rules that are meant to keep discourse civilized and allow the proper exchange of ideas. So what should be done if the EFF doesn’t follow those rules?” South Africa’s 2015 State of the Nation Address may be billed as spectacle, but it could turn into something much more serious.

Correction: The original version of this story misstated the number of State of the Nation speeches Zuma has given. It is the 6th.

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TIME Nigeria

Nigeria’s Military Quails When Faced With Boko Haram

Nigeria's once vaunted military has been hollowed out by corruption, bad leadership, and insufficient training, leaving it vulnerable to Boko Haram's advance

The claims, like the man who made them, were outsize: Nigeria’s military, says National Security Advisor Sambo Dasuki, would crush the Boko Haram insurgency that has bedeviled the country for the past six years, in six weeks. “All known Boko Haram camps would be taken out” by March 28, he told reporters in Abuja on Monday. Just in time for the country’s presidential election, which was rescheduled from its original Feb. 14 date on Saturday.

Given that the Boko Haram insurgency killed more than 10,000 last year, has sent an estimated 1.5 million fleeing for their lives, and now controls a swath of northeastern Nigeria the size of Costa Rica, Dasuki did allow himself a little wiggle room. Even if total annihilation was not, in fact, achieved, he conceded, “The situation would surely be conducive enough for elections.” He would do well to backtrack. Nigeria’s military has so far proved incapable of containing Boko Haram, and there is little to indicate that anything has changed. The African Union pledged 8,700 troops to the fight over the weekend, and on Monday the neighboring country of Niger voted to send in reinforcements as well. That Nigeria’s army needs help dealing with what even its own leaders call a rag-tag militia is a sobering indictment of an institution that was once considered the powerhouse of African peacekeeping. In 2003 the Nigerian army helped defeat the forces of Liberia’s bloodthirsty warlord Charles Taylor. Now it can’t even locate 219 schoolgirls from Chibok that were kidnapped by Boko Haram in April. What happened?

Nigeria’s military has been in decline for the past 16 years, says J. Peter Pham, director of the Africa Center at the Washington D.C.- based Atlantic Council, ever since the country moved from a military dictatorship to a democracy in 1999. The intervening years have seen the country’s armed forces hollowed out by a combination of poor leadership, graft, misdirected staff training and a succession of civilian governments so worried about another coup that they have starved the armed forces of key resources.

To a certain extent, part of the issue is size. The country may have a 90,000 strong standing army, says Pham, but not all of them are soldiers. Nurses, medics, administration personnel and military police don’t fight, “so the actual number of combat ready troops is much lower.” Add to the fact that some 3,000 troops are currently serving in United Nations peacekeeping missions around the world, and the number left is “inadequate for the task of defending a country the size of Nigeria,” with its population of 174 million and a history of local insurgencies.

A bigger issue is fraud, says former U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria John Campbell, who now runs the Nigeria Security Tracker for the Council on Foreign Relations. Ammunition and arms are budgeted and paid for, but they don’t always reach the front lines, either because they are diverted to the black market, or because the money actually went into a procurer’s pocket. Disgruntled soldiers recently spoke to CNN, describing how they are sent out to fight militants armed with RPGs while they only have dozens of bullets each. The soldiers complained that they had to cover medical expenses for wounds received in battle, and that the spouses of dead soldiers were only granted a minimal stipend. “Nigeria’s annual military budget is somewhere between five and six billion dollars,” says Campbell. “Yet we have credible reports of soldiers being sent into combat with no bullets. The army is plagued by corruption, incompetence and bad morale.”

Military spokesman Maj. Gen Chris Olukolade argues that accounts of insufficient arms and ammunition are an exaggeration. Concern for civilian casualties, he says, has limited the effectiveness of soldiers in an asymmetric battle where the militants routinely take human shields. Nigerians don’t appreciate the costs of war, he says, so it is easy to blame the military’s failures on corruption when there are other factors at play. As is often the case, there is no firm evidence of graft, but Pham notes that there is enough anecdotal evidence to make a case. He cites Nigeria’s purchase of Israeli-made surveillance drones a few years ago. The drones were paid for and delivered, but despite budget allocations for their maintenance and upkeep, the drones were inoperable last spring, when they could have been used to locate the missing Chibok schoolgirls. Instead U.S. and British drones had to be flown in to do reconnaissance. It may not be a smoking gun, says Pham, but it’s enough to start asking hard questions.

As Olukolade inadvertently points out, Nigeria’s armed forces aren’t particularly well trained in counter-insurgency. They are a conventional army faced with an unconventional force that cares little for collateral damage. Nigeria’s army has a bad record of human rights abuses as well, according to Human Rights Watch. Unlike the militants they are fighting, they have to at least make an effort to do the right thing, says Olukolade in a wrong-footed attempt to explain the military’s limitations. “We are aware we are being watched, and are accountable, and that has affected the speed, the kind of swift actions we want to take against [Boko Haram]. We are constantly being put under check, and that has put a check on how far we can go in fighting back.”

Pham, who has worked in West Africa for over a decade, agrees that the Nigerian military’s training is not adequate for the job at hand. The resource-starved, post-dictatorship army often found that the best outlet for attention was U.N. peacekeeping deployments. As a result, he says, officers at Nigerian staff colleges focused more on courses that could get them the coveted U.N. Department of Peacekeeping certification, rather than on tactical and strategic decision-making. “They are trained to think like peace keeping bureaucrats,” says Pham. “So when you throw someone trained in peacekeeping into a war-fighting situation, they are way out of their depths.”

That has been made abundantly clear in the case of Boko Haram, which has continued to make advances in the region even as U.S. officials estimate that its total size is between 4,000 and 6,000 fighters. The group’s recent expansion into Niger and Cameroon has regional leaders up in arms, and ready to fight. Pham says that the extra 8,700 African Union troops will make a good hammer to the Nigerian military’s anvil, but whether or not they will prove successful by March 28, is unclear.

Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau, no stranger to outsize pronouncements himself, scoffs at the new military alliance. “Amass all your weapons and face us,” he taunted in a 28-minute speech in Arabic broadcast on YouTube. “You send 7000 troops? Why don’t you send seven million? By Allah, it is small. We can seize them one by one.”

TIME Nigeria

Nigeria’s Delayed Election Gives President a Convenient Time-Out

Nigeria cited security concerns in postponed ballot — but incumbent Goodluck Jonathan stands to benefit most from it

When Nigeria’s government first floated the idea of postponing upcoming presidential elections last month due to concerns about the country’s readiness, the proposal was widely derided as a cynical political ploy. Incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan, once considered a shoo-in, was facing an unexpectedly strong campaign from former military dictator Muhammadu Buhari. An Afrobarometer poll released on Jan. 27 indicated that the two were neck-and-neck. Delaying the election, pro-Jonathan pundits suggested, would give the president more time to make his case for why he should remain at the wheel. Opponents said it would enable his People’s Democratic Party, facing its first defeat after 15 years in power, to dig deeper into a sizable war chest—and state coffers—to outspend Jonathan’s rival.

Those calculations will now be put to the test. Late Saturday evening, Nigeria’s independent election commission bowed to pressure and announced that presidential elections, originally scheduled for Feb. 14, would be postponed until March 28. Nigeria’s widely-respected election commission head Attahiru Jega cited security concerns as the reason for the delay, saying that he had been informed that the country’s overstretched military forces would not be able guarantee voters’ safety. “The commission cannot lightly wave off the advice of the nation’s security chiefs,” Jega said at the press conference. “Calling people to exercise their democratic rights in a situation where their security cannot be guaranteed is a most onerous responsibility.”

To be sure, Nigeria’s military is facing a serious threat in the advance of Boko Haram, a 6000-strong Islamist insurgency that has taken control of a wide swath of northeastern Nigeria. In recent weeks the militants have driven entire units from strategic posts, laid waste to multiple villages, launched suicide bomb attacks, and advanced into neighboring Chad and Cameroon.

But in January, Nigerian military spokesman Major General Chris Olukolade assured TIME that the country’s army would be well up to the task of defending its citizens come election time. So what changed? According to Jega’s official statement, the combined heads of Nigeria’s security services indicated that the army was about to launch a major military operation against Boko Haram, and would not be available to provide backing to the police and other agencies during the next six weeks.

Still, some in Nigeria balked at the idea that the country’s entire military force, which had until recently deployed only one brigade during the whole course of the six-year insurgency, would be otherwise engaged on the day of elections. “The government knew of the security situation all along, so to postpone the polls under the pretext of suddenly now concentrating military and other security resources against the insurgency is absolutely untenable,” says Nnamdi Obasi, Nigeria Analyst for the International Crisis Group.

The United States, too, made it clear that it wasn’t buying it. Secretary of State John Kerry said that he was “disappointed” by the postponement, suggesting that the commission was forced to make the decision. “Political interference with the Independent National Electoral Commission is unacceptable,” he said in a statement. “It is critical that the government not use security concerns as a pretext for impeding the democratic process.”

It also raises the question of what happens if the operation fails. The government is “asking for six weeks to deal with an insurgency it had failed to deal with in almost six years,” says Obasi. “What will happen to the national elections if the security situation in the northeast does not improve significantly in those six weeks?”

Obasi says the postponement is pure politics. “Jonathan and his ruling PDP were clearly in deep waters, so desperately needed to buy time and try to regain steam. The timing of the postponement, the untenable reasons advanced for it and particularly the underhand methods by which it was executed, all leave no doubt that it was driven by narrow political interests rather than national security considerations.”

While Buhari made it clear that he believed the postponement to be an underhanded attempt to bolster Jonathan’s chances at the polls, he also called for calm. “Any act of violence can only complicate the security challenges in the country and provide further justification to those who would want to exploit every situation to frustrate the democratic process,” he told supporters at a rally Sunday.

Delaying the vote, he implied with a good dose of bravado, would only make his candidacy more appealing to an electorate tired of Jonathan’s mismanagement and political shenanigans. “If anything, this postponement should strengthen our resolve and commitment to rescue our country from the current economic and social collapse from this desperate band.”

If the security situation does improve over the next six weeks, it is likely to have little to do with the efforts of the Nigerian military. Niger’s parliament is set to vote Feb. 9 on sending troops to aid Nigeria in its fight against Boko Haram, and the African Union has pledged an additional 7,500. That influx of troops could help Jonathan’s chances at the polls. The incumbent’s campaign has been dogged by his poor record on security, something that Buhari, a former military dictator with a strong-arm reputation, has used to his advantage. Military successes would reverse Jonathan’s bad record.

But the delay could also backfire spectacularly, allowing Boko Haram more time to launch attacks. The militia has no horse in this race, and has threatened both Jonathan and Buhari. Boko Haram is just betting that as long as the country can’t agree on a leader, it won’t be able to agree on a counter-insurgency policy either.

TIME

Nigerian Elections Threaten Campaign to Make Africa Polio-Free

NIGERIA-HEALTH-POLIO
Aminu Abubakar—AFP/Getty Images A polio vaccinator administers oral drops to a child in the Dawanau district of Kano, northern Nigeria in 2013.

Nigeria is is the last country in Africa which is still polio-endemic but it hasn't had a case in six months

For all that ails Nigeria —Boko Haram jihadists rampaging across the country’s northeast, record unemployment and the plummeting price of crude for an oil-dependent government — one thing has been going very right. Nigeria has not seen a case of polio since July 24, 2014. If it can stay that way another six months it will be removed from the World Health Organization’s (WHO) polio-endemic list, leaving just Pakistan and Afghanistan behind. But the general election, on February 14, has global public health officials worried that Nigeria might yet backslide: every election since 2003 has been followed by a surge in polio cases.

A quarter of a century after it was eradicated in the United States, polio is poised to become the second disease since smallpox to be wiped out in the wild. That progress has been achieved through a concerted effort by UNICEF, WHO and Rotary International to establish strict vaccination protocols for governments in affected countries. All it takes is two drops of the vaccine, administered three different times, to render a child immune. In order to achieve that, governments usually hold vaccination drives in affected areas every six weeks. In 1988 there were 350,000 cases of polio in 125 countries; in 2014 that number went down to 339 cases. Which is why this year is such a nail biter for Africa. When Nigeria is declared polio-free, after three years without a case, the rest of the continent can start to breathe a little easier.

Up until now, the greatest concern for public health officials has been Nigeria’s insurgency, which has prevented vaccinators from reaching children in violence prone areas. The upcoming poll has added another layer of worry, says Carol Pandak, Rotary International’s PolioPlus program director. “Elections always pose a threat of hindering polio eradication efforts,” she says via email. “Not only in that government officials are distracted leading up the elections, but possible violence and instability following the elections can have a significantly negative impact on polio eradication efforts.” The post-election surge in cases was most apparent following Nigeria’s 2011 Presidential elections, says Dr. Tunji Funsho, head of Rotary International’s Nigeria program. Election results were met with three days of rioting that killed 800 in the worst outbreak of violence since the 1967-70 civil war. The protests “compromised the security situation and prevented vaccinators from reaching a large cohort of children.”

Elections in India, which was declared polio-free last year, were largely spared the post-polling polio surge because of the country’s relative stability, notes Pandak. Recent Pakistani and Afghan elections saw similar case surges, and Nigeria is not likely to be any different this time around, especially since the two contenders, incumbent Goodluck Jonathan, and former general Muhammadu Buhari, are neck and neck according to a recent poll. These elections “have the potential to be much more disruptive given the political divisions in the country,” says Pandak.

There is also the uncertainty of how the newly elected government will or will not prioritize polio eradication. Funsho notes that in the past, Nigeria’s newly elected officials at the state and government levels were reluctant to fund immunization. As a result, coverage and quality of vaccination services declined. “It takes a strong effort to educate the new political leaders on the value of supporting polio eradication and making it a national priority,” says Pandak.

A surge of cases now would be a serious setback. Nigeria had only six cases last year, down from 53 in 2013. The rapid decline is a serious achievement, considering that in 2003 vaccinations all but stopped in the north of the country when religious leaders declared that the vaccines were part of a plot to sterilize Muslim girls. By the end of the year, 447 children in Africa had been paralyzed by the Nigerian strain of the virus. Within two years it had spread to across 16 countries, reaching as far away as Indonesia.

This year, Funsho is determined to keep Nigeria’s number at zero this year, setting up what he calls a “war room” for polio eradication. He knows that all it takes for those efforts to be undone is an interruption of regular vaccinations and a decline in vigilance. If he succeeds, the world will be one country closer to totally eradicating the disease.

TIME Nigeria

Delaying Nigeria’s Elections May Benefit Boko Haram More Than Democracy

A shoe-mender works near a poster campaigning for Jimi Agbaje, along a road in the Ikeja district in Lagos
Akintunde Akinleye—Reuters A shoe-mender works near a poster campaigning for frontline contender and Lagos governorship candidate for the People's Democratic Party (PDP) Jimi Agbaje, along a road in the Ikeja district in Lagos, Nigeria on Feb. 3, 2015.

Nigeria's election body raised concerns that the country may not be ready for elections planned for Feb. 14

Over the past five years, an insurgency led by the Islamist Boko Haram group has driven 1.6 million Nigerians from their homes in the country’s northeast. So it comes as a bit of a surprise that Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) is only now starting to voice concern about how those citizens will vote in upcoming presidential elections, slated for Feb. 14. Incumbent Goodluck Jonathan is facing a strong challenge from former general Muhammadu Buhari.

On Feb. 4, just 10 days before the start of polling, INEC commissioner Amina Zachary told Reuters that the elections may have to be delayed over fears that not enough registered voters would actually be able to cast ballots. At issue is the requirement that citizens vote where they are registered — difficult enough when Boko Haram threatens to launch squads of suicide bombers across the region in the run-up to the election; impossible when your hometown is under militant occupation, as 20 out of 27 local governorships are in the three northeastern states of Borno, Adamawa and Yobe.

The commission is also worried about the slow rollout of its anti-fraud system. Each voter must have a Permanent Voter Card (PVC) in order to cast a ballot. The cards are digitally embedded with the voter’s fingerprint and can be read by a small battery-powered scanner. If the voter’s fingerprint doesn’t match the information on the card, he or she won’t be issued a ballot. This is designed to prevent accusations of ballot-box stuffing that have marred past elections.

But the problem is that not all voters have their cards yet. Only 44 million out of 68.8 million registered voters have received their cards, according to INEC, many of them in areas plagued by insurgency. In theory, would-be voters can pick up their cards at government offices, but not if fighting shuts those offices down. INEC has extended the deadline for picking up voter cards to Feb. 8, but if the number of cards distributed by then is too low, the commission may decide to postpone the vote. “Let’s see how the PVC distribution goes,” Zachary told Reuters. “Then maybe.”

It’s not just INEC that is concerned. In January, President Jonathan’s national security adviser Sambo Dasuki also suggested that the vote be delayed, for the same reason. And on Feb. 3, about 100 protesters stormed INEC headquarters, brandishing placards demanding a delay. “INEC, do the right thing,” they chanted. “We demand for the extension of election to allow Nigerian exercise their franchise.”

Never one to pass up a good conspiracy story, Nigeria’s Premium Times newspaper posited that the protesters, and Dasuki, may have been put up by Jonathan supporters who feel that their candidate might benefit from a longer campaign season. An Afrobarometer opinion poll released on Jan. 27 indicates that the election is too close to call, a sharp change in fortunes for Jonathan, who was considered a clear front runner as recently as early January, when campaigning started in earnest.

But if Boko Haram continues with its campaign of deadly bombings — a female suicide blew herself up in the northeastern state of Gombe on Feb. 2 — a delay in elections might actually harm Jonathan’s chances. Jonathan’s record on fighting Boko Haram is weak, and Buhari has made security the cornerstone of his campaign. In the end, delaying the elections could end up benefitting Boko Haram the most. More debate on who should be the next President means less attention on what should be done about militancy.

— Additional reporting by Naina Bajekal

TIME Bowe Bergdahl

Guantanamo Detainee Exchanged for American POW Attempts a Return to Battle

Guantanamo Future
Charles Dharapak—AP A U.S. flag flies above buildings used for military tribunals for suspected terrorist prisoners at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base on Nov. 19, 2013.

A Taliban commander exchanged for the release of a POW attempts to return to the battlefield, raising questions about closing Guantanamo

When U.S. President Barack Obama agreed in May to exchange five Taliban detainees from Guantanamo Bay for Bowe Bergdahl, a U.S. soldier who had been held captive for five years, his political opponents had a field day. They warned that the detainees risked returning to Afghanistan, and to militancy. Obama, with the backing of the government of Qatar that had agreed to host the men, promised that they would be kept far from the battlefield. Seems that the men may have had other ideas. According to CNN, U.S. military and intelligence officials now suspect that at least one of the detainees has made contact with Taliban associates in Afghanistan, suggesting that he, and perhaps the others, may be planning a return.

Considering that 29 percent of all U.S. detainees who were held in the Guantanamo detention center are either suspected of or confirmed to have returned to the fight, according to a March 2015 assessment by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, it shouldn’t be all that surprising. TIME’s Massimo Calabresi predicted as much back in June, just after Bergdahl was released. The recidivism rate, he wrote, “suggests that statistically at least one of the Taliban leaders will return to the field to fight Americans in Afghanistan, or elsewhere.”

At the time of the exchange, Taliban commanders who had been involved in Bergdahl’s capture, captivity and release, told TIME that the exchange — five of theirs for one of America’s — would encourage them to seek out more P.O.W.s. So far, that hasn’t happened. It’s not clear which of the five former detainees was reaching out to associates in Afghanistan, but as high-ranking commanders and former comrades-in-arms of Taliban leader Mullah Omar, any one of them could galvanize a movement that is slowly making gains in the wake of the U.S. drawdown in Afghanistan. Even if those plans have now been foiled, the incident may have one other far reaching consequence: as Obama attempts to close down Guantanamo for good, his opponents now have more ammunition for why he should not.

Read More: Behind the Scenes of Bowe Bergdahl’s Release

TIME portfolio

Meet Saudi Arabia’s Special Security Forces

These forces don’t pull their punches

In March 2013, photographer Lynsey Addario, along with TIME‘s Africa Bureau Chief Aryn Baker, gained access to Saudi Arabia’s highly secure and secretive Special Security Forces’ training grounds. They witnessed how the elite soldiers’ intense exercise regimen has prepared them to face all forms of terrorism or threats in the Kingdom. Following the death of King Abdullah, Interior Minister Muhammad bin Nayef, who leads his country’s counterterrorism program and oversees these forces, was named Deputy Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. He is now second-in-line to the throne.

Every country has its moment of reckoning. For Saudi Arabia, it was May 12, 2003, when heavily armed militants affiliated with al-Qaeda attacked residential compounds in Riyadh, killing 36, including nine Americans. That assault was just the beginning of a terror epidemic that unleashed car bombings, suicide attacks and targeted assassinations on a country that had known relative calm for nearly a decade. The number of attacks climaxed in 2004, when more than 60, including several foreigners, died throughout the country in a campaign of violence orchestrated by al-Qaeda militants bent on destroying the Saudi monarchy. The government responded by bolstering its Special Security Forces, crack anti-terror teams that work under the Ministry of Interior to root out terrorists in the Kingdom.

For three years, the Special Security Forces battled with militants in the country’s urban expanses, until the threat died down with the capture and killing of the al-Qaeda chief and hundreds of other militants in “pre-emptive” strikes in late 2006 and early 2007. Lessons learned from those early days now form the core of Saudi Arabia’s Special Security Forces curriculum. The forces, which number about 10,000, go through a rigorous training program designed to prepare soldiers for every possible contingency, from an attack on a VIP convoy to hostage search and recovery, bomb clearance, storming militant hideouts, pinpoint parachute landings, precision shooting and surveillance. In March 2013, TIME was granted rare access to a demonstration that put the newly trained recruits through their paces. “2003 to 2007 was a good lesson for us. The kind of training we have now reflects the new era of terrorism,” said Major Ahmad Hakimi, as he guided us through the purpose built facilities just outside Riyadh.

The facility boasts a massive, foam-covered and bullet proof shooting arena with adjustable housing configurations, to mimic urban house clearing. The adjoining warehouse features an entire airplane fuselage so commandos can practice combatting would-be hijackers. Outside recruits practice dropping from helicopters into fake compounds, in the style of the bin Laden capture. They climb up and rappel down water towers and practice hand-to-hand combat with designated “enemies.” They don’t pull their punches either—learning to take a gut punch is part of the training.

Basic military training lasts three months, followed by another month of basic security training and an additional specialization that can last for anything from two months to seven. There is a strong focus on explosives, and Hakimi seemed to take particular delight in having his visitors inadvertently set off pyrotechnic “bombs” triggered by every day objects, from the tab on a can of Pepsi to a doctored Koran or a small briefcase. None of the disguised bombs were invented, he explained. Militants had used each at one time or another in the Kingdom, to devastating effect. “It’s important to realize that anything has the potential to set off a bomb. We have to be aware,” he said.

Saudi society is strictly segregated along gender lines. Even when it comes to security issues, female police deal with women and male police, men. I asked if there were any women in counterterrorism training. Hakimi laughed, and pointed out that there would be no need in Saudi society. So what happens in the case of female terrorists? I asked. Hakimi, our voluble guide with an answer for everything, was momentarily stumped. “I guess,” he allowed, “we deal with terrorists as terrorists. It doesn’t matter when they are trying to harm our nation.”

Lynsey Addario, a frequent TIME contributor, is a photographer represented by Getty Images Reportage.

Michelle Molloy, who edited this photo essay, is a senior international photo editor at TIME.

TIME Michelle Obama

Michelle Obama Unveiled in Saudi: A Style Statement, Not a Political Statement

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama participate in a delegation receiving line with new Saudi Arabian King, Salman bin Abdul Aziz, right, in Riyadh, Jan. 27, 2015.
Carolyn Kaster—AP President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama participate in a delegation receiving line with new Saudi Arabian King, Salman bin Abdul Aziz, right, in Riyadh, Jan. 27, 2015.

Correction appended Jan. 29

There is nothing quite as contentious as the headscarf issue when it comes to women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, at least where western observers are concerned. So when U.S. first lady Michelle Obama went to pay her respects after the death of Saudi King Abdullah in Riyadh with her hair uncovered, social media lit up with both praise and opprobrium. “Michelle Obama shouldve stayed in Airforce One as a sign of boycott rather than flouting rules of another country #Michelle_Obama_NotVeiled” tweeted @Random_Arora. “She was a guest in another country &culture. She should make no judgements, but show proper respect at a funeral.2 #Michelle_Obama_NotVeiled,” wrote @MonaBadah.

The thing is, Obama wasn’t really flouting any rules when she chose not to wear a headscarf. While foreign female visitors to the Kingdom are expected to wear long, loose fitting garments as a sign of respect — Obama obliged with a long coat over dark trousers — the headscarf is optional. The muttawa, or religious police, might growl menacingly, but there is nothing legally wrong with going uncovered for non-Muslims. Doing so may draw unwanted attention, and the ire of conservatives, but most Saudis treat the headscarf as a sign of piety, or at least feigned piety for public consumption.

When it comes to women’s rights in the kingdom, the headscarf is the least of any Saudi activist’s worries. She is more likely to be concerned about the right to drive, the right to vote, the right to keep her children after asking for divorce and the right to travel, marry and work without express permission from a male guardian. So maybe if Obama had driven to the funeral herself, it would have been worth a stir. Instead, she did as several other notable female visitors to the Kingdom, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice among them, have done before: dressing respectfully without compromising their own personal sense of style. It’s not like Mr. Obama decided to don a thobe and shemagh for the occasion.

Correction: The original version of this story mischaracterised Obama’s visit to Riyadh. It was to offer condolences for the Saudi King.

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