Voters Registration: Looking at the Mistakes and Misgivings!

by L.Chinedu Arizona-Ogwu

Voter registration is the most crucial of all steps involved in holding election, but for Nigeria; anyone with commonsense would understands that voter registration and preparation of voters’ list tells it all that there is also unanimity on the view that to holding a free, fair and impartial election from correct voters’ list.

The emphasis here is on the word ‘correct’ and not on the list per se. It is the common understanding that a list to be ‘correct’ has to include the names of all those who are eligible to cast vote in elections provided for in the constitution. Omission of names of these individuals or inclusion of fake voters in the voters’ list negates this condition. Acts of both omission and commission may happen through genuine mistake or because of mala fide intentions on the part of those entrusted with enrolment of voters. Mistake, on the other hand, takes place if the system and procedure followed is faulty. Manipulation is facilitated by authorities who have ulterior motive and are biased politically.

No system is foolproof. A voter registration system, however perfect, may have loopholes allowing unscrupulous elements involved in the system to exploit it to serve their purpose. Participation of civil society members and representatives of political parties may address this problem. But ultimately, it is the public, having the eligibility and powers of voting, who can plug the loopholes through their vigilance and participation. A system that creates awareness among the public about their rights and power as voter can go a long way in ensuring a near perfect voters’ list and consequently a free, fair and impartial election. Of course, a correct list is no guarantee for a free and fair election but it is the basis, the primary requirement that has to be fulfilled.

Given the importance of a correct voters’ list for a free and fair election it was not surprising that attempts were made in the recent past to tamper the preparation of the list. Maurice Iwu unilaterally and arbitrarily decided to prepare a completely new voters’ list, though the existing Ordinance and Rules required a renewal of the existing list. When the High Court gave the decision in favour of updating the existing voters’ list the former INEC boss wasted time by submitting an appeal against the order to the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court. After the Appellate Division turned down the appeal and upheld the decision of the High Court, the he decided to have the updating done in the offices of the Electoral Commission. This, together with the appointment of election officials at field level on partisan considerations, led many to believe that there was going to be vote-rigging on a vast scale in the next election. This was the most important issue on which the opposition political parties agitated bringing this country to the abyss of a catastrophe.

After the death of President Umaru Yar’Adua and the installation of the acting-president; the top priority was the overhaul of the INEC which was filled up with commissioners and officials on political consideration. Through behind the scene persuasion, the incumbent commissioners were made to resign and the officers sent on deputation to the INEC were posted elsewhere. The resurfle was completed in record time, at least at the top. Making it independent of the authorities involved amendment of the constitution and it was not considered as urgent in view of the changed circumstances. Reform at the field level was also not urgent as election was not going to be held immediately. Still, the reform process was initiated and the field staffs appointed were asked to reappear in a fresh examination to prove their competence. The newly constituted Indepeendent Electoral Commission (INEC) appeared to be above controversy both because of the background of the commissioners and the sincerity of their purpose. But as time passed an impression gained ground that the INEC was mixing up priorities and losing valuable time in addressing the issues according to their degree of urgency.

The new INEC boss in place of Prof. Attahiru Jega, soon after taking office, was seized with a number of issues which were considered to call for resolution. These were seen as part of the overall reform of the election procedure. Among these were the registration of the political parties, the funding of the parties, the maximum amount that can be spent by a candidate in election, the eligibility criteria of the candidates, the manner of conducting electoral campaign, type of ballot box, electronic vs manual voting and preparation of voters’ list. The commission held discussion meeting with what they called ‘matters arising’ to discuss these issues. The Commission has remained very busy since its re-constitution and one can hardly criticize it for lethargy or lack of sincerity. But looking at the issues addressed so far and their timing it may be questioned whether activities undertaken or deliberation made have been strictly on the basis of priority.

Of all the activities that the Commission has to undertake either as a routine matter or through reform measures, the preparation of the voters’ list is the most crucial because this is the basis of holding election. It also claims top priority because it is a time-consuming process and will require the longest period compared to other activities, decisions and the reform measures. But surprisingly, until recently very little was heard about preparation of the voters’ list, giving the impression as if there was no problem or complexity in this regard. When the INEC at first declared that about a year and a half will be required to complete all preparation for holding the general election, only a conjecture could be made about the time that would be required for voter registration. Moreover, the announcement did not mention the manner of registering the voters. But ideas were circulated about various options: voters’ list with photograph, voter identity card and national identity card.

The pros and cons of each of these options were discussed informally and mainly through the media. While the academic discussion on voters’ list, voter identity card and national identity card went on in a desultory manner, it was difficult to know what was the preference of the INEC on these or whether they were looking for some sort of consensus on the suitable form of registration. It took quite sometime for the INEC to come up with the announcement that it was in favour of a voters’ list with photographs. It was, however, not indicated whether this preference was made on the basis of time required or expenditure involved for each of the options. Whether the idea of national identity card was abandoned altogether was also left unclear.

The most dramatic announcement regarding voter registration was made a few weeks ago when the INEC said that instead of house to house registration, voters would be registered in camps set up by the Commission. This was justified on the ground of the use of digital camera and finger printing devices for the preparation of voters’ list. Few nefarious politicians immediately objected to this and demanded that house to house registration be followed, as in the past. Their apprehension was that many might not turn up at the camps to register themselves and therefore, the voters’ list would be incomplete.

But they had a point. Awareness among all sections of the population is not the same and particular groups may not want to face the hassle of waiting in queues for long time to be photographed, finger printed and registered at the camps. It is the civic duty of every citizen to be registered and to vote but some may avoid this, preferring convenience and comfort. The latest decision and announcement of the INEC takes care of this problem of inertia. It has decided to distribute forms in every house to be filled up by members of th

e household and then have them photographed, fingerprinted and registered in the camps. This will cut down time considerably and at the same time make eligible voters more conscious of their rights and obligation to be registered. Moreover, house to house distribution of forms will also exclude incorrect address or fake address that might be used by potential vote riggers. The proposal made by the INEC is a happy compromise and for this it deserves to be congratulated.

According to the latest information available, the INEC plans to start the work for data entry i.e. compilation of details about voters, November last year 2010.buit the data entry phase were not completed until this year. The next few months will be used for correction of data received and for including new names with details. But the timetable will depend on the analysis of the computers and equipments. With this caveat, the timetable given earlier by INEC that all preparation will be completed within this period appears uncertain. It is not understood why it has taken such a long time to decide about registration with photograph and the national identity card when no objection was raised from either the civil society or the political parties.

The announcement by a team from the Nigeria Government that they can complete the voters’ list with photograph in few months has created further confusion. The assertion by the INEC to stick to their original schedule of a few months for the preparation of voters’ list has not removed the confusion. A press note from the commission has clarified the position to same extent. What is needed now is inter-commission co-ordination. A joint meeting of all the parties and experts involved in electioneering is urgently required to clarify the matter on Nigeria electoral credibility, leaving no ambiguity and to firm up the decision regarding the type of registration, its manner and the estimated time.

Political parties cannot hold meetings but they can be asked to give their opinion through letters to the INEC. Since time is of the essence no stone should be left unturned to cut corners. Unanimity among all stakeholders would be ideal. In its absence, the decision arrived regarding voter registration should be justified by strong reasons and ground reality.

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