LAGOS (Reuters) - Nigeria faces an uphill struggle to salvage credible elections from administrative chaos after aborting its first round of polling this weekend, but the move at least shows some determination to try to get things right.
Africa's most populous nation had to abandon parliamentary polls on Saturday after voting materials failed to arrive in many parts of the country, sparking fury among voters who were promised a break with a history of flawed and violent polls.
It then pushed back the whole election timetable -- including a presidential vote, now scheduled for April 16 -- so as to buy time to solve the logistical problems.
"In the past Nigeria has cancelled good elections and endorsed bad ones. This is perhaps the first time we're seeing a sham election nipped in the bud," Tolu Ogunlesi, a columnist for Nigerian newspaper Next, told Reuters.
"If that's not some form of progress, I wonder what is."
But some in Africa's most populous nation saw a conspiracy to deprive them of a free election. The uncertainty risks leaving the country's 73 million voters disillusioned and heaps additional pressure on the embattled electoral commission.
An electoral official in the northern city of Zaria was beaten up for announcing the postponement on Saturday, while voters in the southern commercial hub Lagos remonstrated with police over what would happen to the ballots already cast.
"At stake could be the credibility of Nigeria's election system, as well as the government that will result from it," said Joe Clark, former prime minister of Canada and one of the leaders of a National Democratic Institute observer team.
The new election timetable sets parliamentary polls for April 9, presidential elections a week later and governorship elections in the 36 states on April 26, leaving precious little time to get things right.
"Some voters may not return to the polls on the new date after the short-notice postponement, potentially affecting results," said Sebastian Boe, an analyst at IHS Global Insight.
The shame-faced head of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Attahiru Jega, said he had been let down by suppliers who blamed shipping problems caused by the tsunami in Japan for failing to get ballot papers to Nigeria on time.
One Western diplomat said the logistical challenges identified by Jega were "just the tip of the iceberg" and that several hundred tonnes of ballot papers and results sheets for the presidential polls alone were yet to arrive.
"Unfortunately, it appears that Jega underestimated the tremendous logistical challenge involved in bringing electoral materials from abroad," the diplomat said.
"The past two days of confusion and chaos have severely undermined public confidence in INEC, its chairman and the overall electoral process ... Still, most Nigerians seem willing to give Jega a chance," the diplomat said.
Where voting did begin on Saturday, it was clear people would fight to ensure their votes counted.
In the populous Ebute Metta district of Lagos, voters vowed to return by torchlight to watch the count, while in one polling station in the northern city of Kano a man trying to buy voter cards was beaten unconscious by voters waiting to be registered.
"The next few days will be key in terms of managing perceptions and restoring confidence," the diplomat said.
"The north is abuzz with rumours that the National Assembly elections were cancelled midstream because the ruling party was losing badly. We're concerned further mis-steps may increase tensions and lead to a deteriorating security environment."
One foreign observer monitoring the polls said the greatest risk now was that a "cock-up turns into a conspiracy theory."
"This postponement has given a big and undue advantage to the ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP) and their candidates, who have unhindered access to huge government funds," said the Niger Delta People's Salvation Front (NDPSF), one of many activist groups in the country's volatile southern oil region.
Although all of the major political parties met with Jega and agreed on the postponement, similar conspiracy theories were being peddled by opposition officials in parts of the north.
"The PDP is aware of the spurious allegations of attempts at rigging made against it by opponents," the PDP's presidential campaign council, which is organising President Goodluck Jonathan's election bid, said in a statement.
"We see such distractions as the rantings of those who see failure and envisage defeat at the polls and we urge our teeming supporters not to fret," it said.
Jega could now struggle to rebuild confidence if opportunistic politicians rile up the electorate, risking a repeat of the violent and flawed polls of 2007, when observers questioned whether the outcome reflected the will of the people.
"Nigeria is a huge, complex country with a history over many years of mostly very bad elections," said Antony Goldman, a Nigeria expert and head of London-based PM Consulting.
"There has been a gathering awareness that a further deterioration from the dismal standards set in 2007 might threaten constitutional rule, and potentially the integrity of the nation itself," he said.
"If the elections can now pass off peacefully, the situation could perhaps be salvaged. But an already immense challenge has become more difficult still."
Additional reporting by Matthew Tostevin in Abuja, Joe Penney in Kano, Sahabi Yahaya in Kaduna, Writing by Nick Tattersall; Editing by Matthew Tostevin