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Abati: Why we can’t register voters

NIGERIA has been registering voters for elections since 1922 when the legislative council elections were held by the Clifford colonial administration. And yet, about 89 years later, Nigeria is still having problems compiling a proper data base for elections nor is it able to formulate an acceptable electoral framework: it is the ultimate sign of the underdeveloped nature of our democracy and of course, of the Nigerian state that this is so. A one-week extension is being contemplated for the current voters’ registration exercise, but there is no guarantee that the extension will make any difference, no guarantee either that it will facilitate the achievement of credible polls in April.

This is sad, considering the importance of a voters’ register to the electoral process, and the kind of evil uses to which its manipulation had been put in past elections.  The weight of the massive failure we face is made worse by the fact that the INEC Chairman, Professor Attahiru Jega appears to be showing signs of anxiety: he has been reported as threatening to resign his appointment, and in another breath, he showed up at the National Assembly to say that he needs a week more to be able to capture more voters, and of course this will cost the Nigerian taxpayer additional 6.6 billion naira. The 2011 Nigerian polls may well prove to be the most expensive election ever held anywhere in the world. Jega likes to ask for money but the problem is not money; even if costs are involved in the running of elections, there are far deeper issues embedded in the lessons arising from the farcical efforts of the past two weeks.

One, we must admit that there can be no doubt that Nigerians are passionate about democracy. They are particularly desperate about the 2011 April elections, they want to participate in the process, vote and be seen to be taking charge of their destiny. This explains the massive turn out for the voters’ registration exercise.  It also explains why in many parts of the country, there have been reports of violence resulting in deaths and injury and protests, originated by persons who chose to express their anger over attempts to shut them out of the process. We have had instances of citizens lending tables, chairs, generators and even the use of their living rooms to registration officials who lacked basic facilities and whose equipment kept malfunctioning. Registration officials have been offered food, state governments have asked INEC officials to ask for whatever help they may need, and in Kwara, the state government gave INEC officials “a gift” of N100 million.  

There is no provision for this in the enabling laws and it is why former Resident Electoral Commissioner Adamawa state, now Minister of State for Health, Suleiman Bello, has been indicted for collecting “hardship allowance” from the Adamawa State Governor, Murtala Nyako in 2007 when he served as INEC Commissioner in that state.  We have seen INEC officials in this pre-election phase, thoroughly compromised, as they were in 1999, 2003, and 2007, and even long before 1999. State governments with partisan interests, landlords who are party agents, neighbourhood lords who like to control territory and “sons of the soil” who have helped INEC officials one way or the other to manage the hardship that they have been exposed to may be expressing their passion for democracy, but they may also well have offered Greek gifts.

Two, Professor Jega and others have said that the hiccups that have attended the voters’ registration exercise should be expected, and that an extension is inevitable. We should be honest enough to admit that the country is paying the price for its tardiness, lack of organization and inefficiency.  Despite the fact that elections have been held on many occasions since 1999, it is shameful that Nigeria has left voters’ registration till the last minute. The first time table for the 2011 elections was released in March 2010, with the elections scheduled for January 2011. With the original time table, there would have been more than enough time to run all the items. In September 2010, INEC released another time table with elections scheduled for January 2011. But in typical Nigerian style, with foreseeable and avoidable problems being accepted as given, the elections have had to be pushed till the last minute.

The timetable released in November 2010 lives little or no time for manoeuvring. The proposed extension would mean that for a whole week, INEC would be busy with registration of voters, other items on the INEC time-table would have to wait, or receive less attention while INEC remains distracted.  INEC having rejected the PDP request to hold re-run primaries, outside the original timetable, may also have lost the moral right to insist that the time-table is unchangeable.  Besides, how many more items on the time-table would have to be shifted? Is the reigning confusion contrived? Could there be any merit to the argument that the ground is being prepared for an extension of the May 29, 2011 hand over date? Whatever happens, that date should be respected.  The rigmarole over voters’ registration must appear ludicrous to the international community. What is advertised is the fact that Nigeria has no reliable national data base through which it keeps track of its demographics: there are no benchmarks against which the current exercise can be checked: no data from the National Population Commission, or the National Civic Registration Centre, no proper records of births and deaths, no social security data. No serious country is run in such manner in the 21st century. Indeed, the voters’ registration exercise reveals many truths about Nigeria and its people.

Three, after about twelve years of organizing elections consistently, that is since 1999, Nigeria’s electoral commission is at best a weak and inchoate institution. Every electoral chief that has been appointed since 1999 practically had to begin again.  In every election, the country ends up throwing away good money in pursuit of bad results. Maurice Iwu, the past immediate INEC Chairman conducted voters’ registration; he also bought registration machines costing the country a lot of money, he also trained so-called staff. But Jega has had to start all over again: Iwu’s register was condemned: it certainly did not work, his machines have vanished into thin air, the ad hoc staff that he used to work with, are nowhere to be seen. And so Jega, appointed in June 2010, is struggling to build the institution afresh, without past resources or helpful institutional memory.

If this is the case with all the institutions involved in the delivery of electoral outcomes, and if the pre-election phase is truly critical to results, then we can conjecture that the April 2011 polls have failed a-borning. Election is a process; failure at one stage compromises the other stages. And the failures of the current exercise are too clear to be doubted: registration officials arrive late, materials are inadequate, the machines malfunction, and so on. This is the same old Nigerian story, all the more disturbing because we now know that so-called electoral reform has not made the INEC independent. “National Assembly summons Jega,” the media scream, and when Jega appears before the National legislature, he is held in utter contempt and made to beg. We may have to take a second look at the subject of independence with regard to the electoral commission.

Four, there has been a lot more that has been exposed about the bizarre aspects of the Nigerian personality. There have been reports of outright bribery, with persons having to pay to secure a place on the registration queue.  In some states, there have been allegations of open purchase of voters’ cards, or the bribery of voters by ruling parties, and promise of more patronage to come before the April elections. Do Nigerians really want democracy therefore, or does it provide them another opportunity for self-enrichment at all levels? In a disorganised state such as ours, it is natural for everyone including the average man to seek rent from the state. But a voters’ registration exercise that is turned into a rent-collection opportunity definitely cannot produce honest voters. More worrisome questions have been raised about the geographical distribution of the confusion over voters’ registration. It would appear that the agitation is mostly in the Southern part of the country. It has been whispered that there are more than enough machines in Northern Nigeria, and that it is easier to register in Sokoto state than say, Ekiti state. The subtle ethnicisation of voters’ registration can only provide the fuel for future violence and disagreeableness. Same goes for the introduction of the religious element with women in hijab in Lagos state claiming that they cannot be asked to remove their hijab, and with an INEC PRO, Hakeem Ogunmuyiwa reportedly supporting the protesters to lambast INEC field officers.  

Five, Jega says INEC needs only one more week, and that 28 million Nigerians out of 70 million prospective voters have already been captured in two weeks. How is he sure that with N6.6 billion, it is possible to register 42 million Nigerians in one week? It is not as if the INEC machines have suddenly improved. One of the importers of the machines has been granting interviews to say that the machines are old, and that the batteries being used as main power supply are designed as back up batteries. So, what exactly is likely to change to result in improved performance? In many states, Ekiti and Delta for example, registration has not started in many places. What civil society should begin to demand is a proper audit of INEC expenditures and performance so far? Who supplied what?

And was the agreed specification met? Who did not honour contractual agreements resulting in late arrival of materials, lack of equipment, non-payment of allowances and what are the penalties for such persons or groups? In addition,  those who fostered violence during the exercise would have to be identified and punished in order to send out a strong warning that such impunity would not be condoned.

Six, like all things Nigerian, there was a touch of the ludicrous to the entire process. One man discharged semen on a woman who was standing in front of him on the registration queue. He brought out his “weapon of mass destruction” and discharged probably toxic chemical! He was taken to court and fined N1, 000. Was that justice? In some parts of the country, concerned citizens took over the registration process and offered INEC officials food and drinks. Was that hospitality or subterfuge? In Gombe state, the women want mosquito nets as incentive! In Ekiti, the state government tells civil servants no voter’s card, no salary.” In Bayelsa, it is “no voters’ card, no pilgrimage.”

INEC must be honest enough to admit that the 2011 electoral process is failing because it is designed to fail by the ruling elite. Professor Maurice Iwu, who has cleverly stayed off the radar, like Humphrey Nwosu did for years, must be cracking his ribs with laughter. N87 billion; possible additional N6. 6 billion; three constitutional amendments in six months, forced schools closure, murder and sundry violence…., yet woeful performance: Jega may well have no option but to play the activist and walk away and hopefully thereby redeem his image.

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Posted by on Jan 29 2011. Filed under Columnists, NNP Columnists, Reuben Abati. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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