* Presidential election delayed to Feb. 23
* Electoral commission says move to ensure free and fair poll
* Ruling party says was ready for vote, criticises commission
* Opposition says part of bid by president to cling on to power (Adds quotes, details, bullet points)
By Alexis Akwagyiram and Camillus Eboh
ABUJA, Feb 16 (Reuters) – Politicians and voters across Nigeria expressed dismay and disappointment on Saturday after a national election was postponed hours before polls were due to open, with one opposition leader calling the move a dangerous ploy to keep President Muhammadu Buhari in power.
The one-week delay was needed to hold a free and fair election, the chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Mahmood Yakubu, told reporters in the early hours of Saturday.
“The commission came to the conclusion that proceeding with the election as scheduled is no longer feasible. Consequently the commissioners decided to reschedule the presidential and national assembly elections to Saturday 23 February 2019,” he said.
Buhari faces a tight election contest against the main opposition candidate, businessman and former vice president Atiku Abubakar.
Aides to both men said their candidates would return to the capital Abuja on Saturday. Buhari and Atiku are in the northern states of Katsina and Adamawa, where they had been due to vote.
The chairman of the main opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP), Uche Secondu, said the move was “dangerous to our democracy and unacceptable”.
He said it was part of an attempt by Buhari to “cling on to power even when it’s obvious to him that Nigerians want him out”.
Buhari’s ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) party also criticised the electoral commission for the delay.
Buhari “cooperated fully with INEC by ensuring everything it demanded to conduct free and fair elections were promptly made available”, it said in a statement. “This news is therefore a huge disappointment to us.”
Voters across Nigeria – Africa’s largest economy, top oil producer and most populous nation – also said they were unhappy.
In the northeastern city of Maiduguri, people gathered for morning prayers after which they had planned to vote.
“We are disappointed and deeply pained by the postponement of the election. We spent our all night without sleeping hoping to vote today and just hearing the news that the election was been postponed,” said one worshipper, Auwolu Usman.
Kabiru Sale, 27, who sells oil in the northern city of Kano, said the move took him by surprise.
“I am not happy with the suspension. I had already gone out to cast my vote only to be told on the way about the suspension. I do not really understand why they suspended the election,” he said.
Commission officials told Reuters there had been problems circulating ballot papers and results sheets.
Presidential elections in 2011 and 2015 were also delayed over logistics and security issues.
Nigeria is also dealing with pockets of instability and past elections have been marred by violence, intimidation and ballot rigging. Authorities had bolstered security in much of the country.
Dozens of policemen and other security forces were deployed from police headquarters in Maiduguri, the capital of northeast Borno state that has been worst hit by the Boko Haram militant group and its offshoot, Islamic State in West Africa Province.
INEC said voting to elect state governors was also to be delayed by a week to Mar. 9.
The president’s spokesman said INEC was expected to hold a meeting at 2pm local time (1300 GMT).
Additional reporting by Paul Carsten, Ardo Hazzad, Lanre Ola,
Aaron Ross, Garba Muhammad, Nneka Chile, Percy Dabang and
Abraham Achirga; writing by James Macharia and Alexis
Akwagyiram; editing by Angus MacSwan