Credible elections and INEC’s harvest of challenges

INEC chairman Prof Mahmood Yakubu

When recently the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) through one of its Commissioners, Mrs. May Agbamuche-Mbu, announced the registration of additional 21 political parties, many observers were exasperated. Most observers were also worried about the rationale for increasing the number of political parties to 67 barely one year to the next general election.

Conspiracy theorists also viewed INEC’s floodgate of registration as an attempt to mock the electoral process, by flooding the political space with mushrooming platforms, some of which may not maintain functional headquarters.On the flip side, some critical observers contended that the plethora of political parties should elicit a process of weeding out unserious organisations through deregistration similar to the mandate of the Corporate Affairs Commission.

However, it is not only the number of political parties that compounds the possible challenges that INEC would confront in the forthcoming general election. The collection rate of Permanent Voter Cards (PVCs) shows that the commission has a lot of work to do in the area of public enlightenment and rejigging of its systems.

Next to that is the success ratio of the Continuous Voter Registration (CVR). One essential component of CVR is updating of the voter register through delisting of dead voters, as well as, effecting the transfer of voters to new places of abode. INEC and incumbent Kogi State Governor, Yahaya Bello, are entangled in arguments over double registration. While INEC has disciplined its staff involved in the double registration of the governor, Bello insists that he committed no such offense promising that his lawyers would clear his name and subject the electoral umpire to national ignominy.

However the dust raised by INEC over Bello’s double registration settles, the recent increase in the number of political parties that would feature on the ballot in the 2019 general election and the challenge of fine-tuning its strategies and systems constitute sources of immediate concern to Nigerians.

Fire Brigade Approach
NOT long ago, a civil society group, International Society for Civil Liberties and Rule of Law (Intersociety) petitioned the seven crucial electoral stakeholders in the country on the need to avoid a fire-brigade approach in the conduct of the 2019 election.The prominent stakeholders included INEC chairman, President of Senate, Speaker of the House of Representatives, Inspector General of Police, Attorney General of the Federation (AGF) and chairmen of Senate and House of Reps committees on INEC.

It could be noted that the core electoral stakeholders consist of lawmakers, security and electoral process players and custodians. Although Intersociety expressed worry about some negative observations arising from the recent governorship election in Anambra State, issues of electronic voting, balanced voter registration and proper distribution of PVC to cover a greater percentage of registered voters did not escape its intervention.

In the letter signed by Emeka Umeagbalasi, chairman of its Board of Trustees, Intersociety informed the stakeholders of the possible threats to election boycott, rigging and low turnout of voters and voter militarisation. At the root of every credible election is popular participation enhanced by free and fair access to ballot and choice. Intersociety relates voter militarization to a sundry of activities bordering on fixation and substantial lack of adequate preparation.

They include, “deployment of war-like combatants and arsenal” in the name of providing security during elections, thereby heightening panic among the voting population.A recent development as witnessed in Anambra State is the unrestrained sharing of cash and other inducements to influence voters. It is therefore possible that with as much 67 political parties on the ballot, the average time spent by each voter to cast his/her vote would increase, thereby creating problems for the election custodians and process facilitators.

With the possible high incidence of apathy, vote procurement becomes inevitable therefore vitiating every effort made to enhance the credibility of the electoral process and elections in Nigeria.

Case For Electronic Voting
GIVEN the reality of merchandising of PVC, some observers have called for the full application of electronic voting, arguing that if most Nigerians can use the Automated Teller Machine (ATM) cards, employing a similar technology in elections is long overdue.But, with increase in balloting time, it would prove more difficult to be manually and electronically (via card reader) accredited than to vote, which then leaves the system at the mercy of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) section of INEC.

INEC has not achieved up to 80 percent distribution of PVCs, thereby helping to provide voters with a ready alibi to shun the polling booths. Low voter turnout, especially in governorship poll, according to Intersociety, “has become a recurring decimal.”

According to the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), 61% of Nigeria’s estimated population of 175million-180milion or 110million are eligible to vote; out of which only 68, 834, 252 were registered voters as at 2015, leaving behind 41million others unregistered or as ghost voting population in Nigeria. Also out of 68, 834, 252 registered voters in the country as at 2015, only 56, 768, 406 received their Permanent Voter Cards (PVCs); leaving behind 12, 065, 406 registered voters without PVCs. In the 2015 Presidential Election, only 28, 587, 564 registered voters voted; leaving behind 40, 246, 688 as registered voters who did not vote; in addition to 41million unregistered voting population; totaling 81, 246, 688 who excluded themselves or were excluded in the electoral or voting process in Nigeria till date.

Perhaps it was in the light of the above statistics that Intersociety did a breakdown according to geopolitical zones, noting that as at March 12, 2015, the Southwest Zone had a total registered voting population of 13, 731, 866; out of which 8, 965, 126 were issued with PVCs. It added: “The South-south Zone had a total of 10, 059, 765 as registered voters, out of which 8, 365, 765 had their PVCs. The Southeast Zone had 7, 665, 859 as registered voters out of which 6, 614, 934 were issued with PVCs. That is to say that the entire Southern Nigeria had a total of 31, 457, 072 as registered voters out of which 24, 985, 825 were issued with PVCs leaving 6, 471, 247 without PVCs.”

The group further outlined that while the Northwest had a total of 17, 620, 436 registered voters, 16, 096, 060 had their PVCs, leaving only 1, 524, 376 without PVCs. “North-central had 9, 767, 411 registered voters, out of which 7, 651, 505 were issued with PVCs leaving 2, 115, 906 without PVCs; while the Northeast Zone ravaged by Boko Haram insurgency had a total of 9, 107, 861 registered voters, out of which 7, 722, 653 were issued with PVCs leaving only 1, 385, 208 without PVCs,” Intersociety contended.

The United Progressives Party (UPP) has been at the forefront in the calls for full application of electronic voting in Nigeria’s electoral process, arguing that that was the best way to solve the problems associated with rigging and voter apathy.The National Chairman of UPP, Dr. Chekwas Okorie, in a memorandum to the National Assembly, argued that the Electoral Act should be reviewed to accommodate electronic voting, stressing that it would enhance the credibility and save INEC the trouble of a late deployment of sensitive materials and consequent delays.

On its part, Intersociety noted that electronic voting boasts of simplified application methods. It added: “This is more so when many private and public academic and non-academic institutions have successfully gone digital in Nigeria. Specifically, there is successful mobile or electronic banking now in Nigeria through the trios of ICT powered “internet”, “intranet” and “extranet.”“The National Open University of Nigeria (NOUN) has successfully operated e-exams and e-tutor marked assignments; likewise the Federal Polytechnic, Oko, JAMB, WAEC, NAPTEB, among others.”

Without doubt, the introduction and use of digital or electronic voting is long overdue, but it could be fashioned in such a way to exist side by side with the existing manual voting system based on electricity issues. Part of the many pluses of electronic voting, as Intersociety pointed out is that “it will also capture the largest percentage of ‘elite’ and ‘independent’ voters who usually shun polling booths in the slightest atmosphere of fear and threats.”

“Just as Nigerians can stay wherever they are to do mobile banking, electronic or digital voting offers similar opportunities so long as it is election time or hours. The electronic voting system should also be configured in such a way that registered voters can periodically revalidate their PVCs online or electronically through INEC’s ICT data system.

“During voting, voters can easily use their PVCs wherever they are and specifically restricted to or programmed for their voting residencies or polling areas to effect accreditation before voting,” it stated.

Election Offences Tribunal
What remains for INEC to ensure that perpetrators of electoral malfeasance do not continue to get away with such infringements is the establishment of electoral offences tribunal.The commission has made bold efforts to improve on the process. For instance, it approved the pilot of the Continuous Accreditation and Voting Procedure at elections, for the time being. It insists that voting shall be by the Continuous Accreditation and Voting System.

Some of the supplementary provisions are: *The accreditation process shall comprise of authentication and verification of voters using the Card Reader, checking of the Register of Voter, inking of the cuticle of the specified finger.

*The ballot paper shall be issued in the prescribed manner by the Presiding Officer of a Polling Unit/Voting Point (Settlement) and the Assistant Presiding Officer (VP) in the case of a Voting Point (VP).

*Accreditation and Voting shall commence at 8:00am and close at 2:00pm provided that any voters already in the queue shall be granted access to Accreditation and Voting in the prescribed manner.

*The Polling Unit layout shall require the Presiding Officer to sit next to the APO II, while the Presiding Officer shall act as the Overseer.
In the light of anticipated further strains on the system by the bloated number of political parties, the commission may need to revisit the idea of non-refundable deposits to ensure that only serious contenders appear on the ballot.

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