Opinion: Enhancing integrity of Nigeria’s voter register – By JIDE OJO

 

“Recent reports of violations by underage persons following the local government elections in Kano State are deeply disturbing.  The voter register in Kano State is the one used for the 2015 general election. In July 2016, INEC used the same register to conduct a State Assembly bye-election in Minjibir Constituency… No single incident of underage voting was recorded. What therefore happened in the last local government election conducted by the State Electoral Commission? Was the voter register actually used or not?”

–INEC Chairman, Prof. Mahmood Yakubu, on Friday, February 16, 2018 while setting up investigative panel to unravel the reported case of underage voting in Kano

On February 10, 2018, the Kano State Independent Electoral Commission conducted election into the 44 Local Government Areas and 484 councillorship positions in the state. As usual, the ruling party in the state, the All Progressives Congress, won all the contested positions. That is however not the main news. The real gist is that by evening of the Election Day, pictures and video clips of underage voters casting ballot allegedly during the election surfaced in the media. A lot of commentators are of the opinion that there are a lot of undesirable elements in the country’s National Register of Voters.  This is worrisome and heart-rending!

For the records, it is not the first time the country will have issues with her National Register of Voters otherwise called voter register. For a long time, voter registers were compiled manually and without any biometric features of the registrants being captured. That was when the Optical Mark Recognition Registration Form was in vogue.  By 2006, ahead of the 2007 General Elections, the Independent National Electoral Commission decided to capture the biometrics of the registrants. That was when the commission under the leadership of Prof. Maurice Iwu decided to use the Direct Data Capturing Machines to capture the fingerprints and faces of the registrants to be enlisted on the Voter Register. That exercise was sabotaged and undermined by some unscrupulous elements in INEC who in cahoots with politicians decided to pad the Voter Register with “ghost” and fictitious names. Of course, there were a lot of underage voters registered in that exercise. The voter register was the one used for the deeply flawed 2007 General Election where at least 13 governorship elections were annulled at either tribunal or appellate courts. That election was adjudged by national and international accredited observers as the worst in the political history of Nigeria.

By the time Jega was appointed in June 2010, his commission tried to audit the voter register and found out that it was irredeemably bad.  That was what led to the fresh nationwide voter registration of January/February 2011 ahead of that year’s April general election. Even at that, the voters register was not totally cleaned up in spite of the attempt by the commission to use the Automatic Fingerprint Identification System. The AFIS software could only identify and remove multiple registrants. However, there was also a significant number of underage registrants who could not be weeded out.

It was the fear that the voter register is not 100 per cent clean that made the Jega commission to come up with the policy of accreditation before voting during the 2011 and 2015 elections. It was the belief of the commission that if accreditation of voters commence nationwide at 8am and ends at 12:30pm in 2011 and 1:30pm in 2015 even if anyone has multiple Permanent Voter Cards, they will not be able to vote in more than one place given the fact that there will be restriction of movement on election day and every eligible voter is supposed to be in a queue to vote when it commences at 12:30 or 1:30pm. It was the fact that the NRV is also not completely clean that makes INEC to insist that every voter should obtain a Permanent Voter Card. Prior to 2011, people were allowed to vote with the Temporary Voter Card. With the introduction of the PVC in 2011, INEC went a step further in 2015 to introduce the Smart Card Reader to authenticate and verify voters’ details. All these efforts were to enhance the integrity of our elections.

Ordinarily, if the Registration Officers engaged by INEC, many of whom are ad hoc staff of the commission, had followed the provisions of the Electoral Act on Voter Registration as well as INEC guidelines on the exercise, there wouldn’t have been this challenge of multiple and underage registrants. Part Three of the Act comprehensively enunciated the guidelines for the conduct of Voter Register and allied matters. Specifically,  Section 10 (2)(a,b& c) stipulates that for anyone to be registered to vote, such must produce documentary evidence to support the claim that they are eligible to register  in accordance with the provisions of Section 12 of the Act .

Among the documentary evidence required are Birth or Baptismal certificate, National Identity Card, Passport, National Driving Licence or any other document that will prove the identity, age and nationality of the applicant. Incidentally, this requirement of the law is observed in breach by many of the Registration Officers. A similar requirement in Section 14 of the Act is also largely ignored. While the Registration Officers might have been pressured or threatened to register underage people, as attested to by senior INEC officials who publicly commented on this raging issue, in many other instances, the rules are simply ignored or not willingly and voluntarily applied. From the moment the Registration Officers compromised, either by error of omission or commission, what the election management body can do thereafter is simply damage control.

Section 19 of the Electoral Act 2010, as amended, provides a way out of the dilemma of underage voting as well as that of multiple or erroneous registration. The law says that INEC shall appoint a period of between five and 14 days to display the voter register for each Local Government, Area Council or Ward for public scrutiny. This exercise known as Claims and Objections is usually not well-publicised and as such many voters are not aware of how to engage the process. Section 50 of the Electoral Act also states that candidates and Polling Agents can challenge the right of a person to receive ballot paper. The ground of challenge, in my own opinion, includes when such a potential voter is deemed to be under-age.

It is a good thing that INEC has decided to set up a technical committee under the leadership of a National Commissioner to investigate the claim of underage voting in Kano on February 10. The commission has also promised to make the outcome public. What INEC can do in addition is to ensure adequate protection for its staff currently engaged to conduct Continuous Voter Registration. This is to ward off community leaders and politicians who sometimes mount pressure on the ROs to register ineligible persons. Also, a well-publicised claims and objections exercise must be conducted well ahead of the next general elections. Thirdly, political parties and civil society groups should henceforth endeavor to deploy accredited party agents and observers to watch and report on the ongoing CVR. The commission should conduct community outreaches to enlighten the people on eligibility requirements to register as well as hold stakeholder meetings with political parties to admonish their members to desist from pressurising Registration Officers to commit electoral offences. Identified masterminds of underage and multiple registrations must be properly investigated and prosecuted in accordance with the provisions of Section 24 of the Electoral Act.  Election is a multi-stakeholder exercise and everyone must play its role nobly. Punch

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