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INEC and challenges of walking the talk on credible polls 

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[FILES] INEC Chairman, Mahmood Yakubu. Photo; TWITTER/INECNIGERIA


Apart from announcing that governorship election in Anambra State would hold on November 6, 2021, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) also disclosed that it would conduct the poll through electronic balloting.

It should be noted that shortly after the Anambra State governorship, that of Ekiti and Osun would come in quick succession next year. That is a faint picture of the immediate burden of work that the electoral umpire would undertake.

But, while INEC has set electoral timelines even up to 2023, Nigerians have begun to worry about the ability of the electoral body to live up to its lofty promises. Some observers also expressed dismay that INEC has not come out with a comprehensive report on the 2019 General Election, particularly regarding the demographic distribution of the votes.

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Perhaps, the most pressing public expectation from the electoral umpire relates to the agonising intrusion of declaring balloting inconclusive midway into collation after voter preferences have been exposed. What began in Kogi as a kind of force majeure dovetailed into a near permanent feature, when the Bayelsa governorship poll that followed, witnessed another inconclusive verdict.

It is expected that with his inauguration for a second term in office, the INEC chairman, Prof. Mahmoud Yakubu, would brush aside all encumbrances and bring his varied experiences to bear on the promise of delivering credible polls.

How INEC confronts the troublesome influence of electoral irregularities, ranging from underage voting, logistics problems, vote buying, violence and other forms of violation of ballot secrecy and sanctity would be seen from Anambra and subsequent polls. Expectedly, the election management body usually takes the bullets when things go south on Election Day. This is because Nigerians believe that electoral commissions are central to the problems associated with the conduct of elections.
 
Given that the whistle has been blown, and apparently disturbed by the workload ahead, INEC recently said it had identified some critical areas of concern and challenges likely to confront it in the conduct of Anambra governorship poll and the 2023 general elections. The grey areas identified are the issue of electronic voting, Electoral Act Amendment, Continuous Voter Registration, audit of voter register, expansion of access to polling units, among others.

How far has the commission geared up to overcome the above challenges? In the absent of an amended Electoral Act, is it possible that INEC would train its staff on the rudiments of electronic as well as provide needed gadgets?

Although not much stakeholder inputs have been made to the commission’s planning and systems, the last gubernatorial poll in Edo State revealed some gapping flaws that were obfuscated by strong voter resolve to get it right. Nonetheless, while some of the challenges are internal to the commission, others are external to it.

Electoral Act
EFFORTS to review the current Electoral Act began when the 8th Assembly passed the Electoral Act Amendment Bill (2018) and transmitted it to President Muhammadu Buhari for assent. The bill attempted to address a plethora of issues peculiar to Nigeria’s electoral system, such as the cost of politics, internal democracy, use of technological innovations, among others.

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But, President Buhari, for some reasons, vetoed the bill, a development that forced the current 9th Assembly back to the drawing board. Observers in the 2019 general elections, including European Union Election Observation Mission (EU EOM) faulted the last minute decision of the president to reject the bill, saying it put undue operational pressure on INEC. The EU also stated that the 2019 elections would have recorded substantial improvements from past elections if the president had assented to the bill. Going forward, the 9th Senate reintroduced the bill and it has passed first and second reading. 

Upon assuming office for his second term last year, Yakubu enumerated the challenges before the commission. First on the list, according to him, is the need for the National Assembly to give urgent priority to passage of the amended Electoral Act.  

He said: “Our work continues, the quick passage of the Electoral Act amendment is a top priority and you will recall that I appealed to the Senate Committee on INEC during my screening two weeks ago to conclude work for the passage of the Electoral Act amendment by the first quarter of next year.
 
On his part, Senate President Ahmed Lawan, assured that the proposed bills to repeal the Electoral Act No 6. 2010 for a more comprehensive one and enact the INEC Act 2020 would be passed before the end of first quarter of 2021. He said more than 85 submissions made by various stakeholders for amendments would be critically looked into to give Nigerians more credible electoral process.

Speaker of the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila, said the proposed amendments to the electoral laws were important for both politics and governance in Nigeria. While speaking on the provisions of the amendment bill currently being considered by the National assembly, Chairman, House Committee on Electoral Matters, Aishatu Jibril Dukku, said the House sought to amend the provision of Section 52(2) to empower INEC to conduct elections by electronic voting or any other method of voting as it may deem fit.
 
Aside ensuring the compulsory use of Card Readers for election, Dukku said section 63(4) of the proposed laws further makes provision for transmission of election conducted at each of the polling units to the first level of collation of results to which the polling unit belongs in the constituency where the election is held.

Showing optimism that the bill would be passed by the National Assembly and assented to by President Buhari, INEC had recently screened applications from over 40 IT firms bidding to kick-start the deployment of Electronic Voting Machines (EVM). INEC Chairman, Prof. Yakubu, said the deployment of the EVMs was part of efforts to deepen the country’s electoral process, adding that INEC has been working on the deployment of technology in voting at elections to replace the manual system. The commission also expressed optimism that it would test-run the e-voting system in the Anambra governorship poll.

However, pundits are worried that without a new electoral law in place, most of the innovations being pushed out by the umpire may not see the light of the day.

Voter register
WHEN he appeared before the Senate Committee on INEC to defend its 2021 budget last year, Prof. Yakubu expressed the commission’s readiness to begin another round of voter registration in the first quarter of this year. According to him, the voter registration exercise would run till six months before the 2023 general elections.
 
“We will resume voter registration in the first quarter of 2021. And once we resume, it will be continuous for one and a half years, at least until six months to the next general election,” he stated.
 
The last CVR began in April 2017 to the last day of August 2018 and in the last count, Nigeria’s electoral register contains more than 84 million names, a 25 per cent rise from the 2015 election. With Nigeria’s growing population, the present figure of about 200 million is based on projections from a 2006 census. Nevertheless, by 2050, according to UN projections, Nigeria will have overtaken the U.S. to become the world’s third-largest country with 400 million people.
 
Sadly, turnout during elections has been relatively poor, with stakeholders insisting that voter education on the part of the electoral commission has not yielded needed results.  For instance, turnout for presidential elections has been dropping at an alarmingly consistent rate since 2003, data obtained from the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Act Assistance (IDEA) revealed.
 
The 35 per cent voter turnout in 2019 poll was down from 44 per cent in the 2015 presidential election and less than 54 per cent turnout in 2011. More than half of all voters, 51.1 per cent are between 18 and 35. Since the first republic election in 1957, the voting population has increased tremendously with the nation’s growing population.  

Checks by The Guardian revealed that Nigeria’s voting population in the 2019 poll stood at 106,490,312, a 13 per cent increase from 91,669,312 in 2015 and over 25 million difference with 81,691,751 in 2011. 
 
The country’s voting population is expected to climb up to 120 million before the 2023 elections, as more youth would have attained the voting age of 18 since the last count in 2018. With about 40 milllion Nigerians yet to be captured into the nation’s electoral register, there is a wide gap between the country’s voter population and registered voters, a development that the CVR exercise slated to begin in the first quarter of this year must address.

There are also fears that the inadequacies in the Nigeria’s voter register may affect the credibility of the polls. Pundits, who expressed this concern, said the 2019 general elections revealed certain inconsistencies in the register, which can no longer be ignored. For instance, before the elections, the official figure of registered voters from INEC was 84,004,084 but at the point of result declaration, after the presidential election, INEC announced 82,344,107 as the number of registered voters, leaving a lot of questions on the credibility of the data on registered voters.

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Unclaimed Permanent Voter Cards (PVCs) is another challenge the umpire has to contend with. Going into the 2019 poll, of the 84 million registered voters, 72 million PVCs were collected and over 11 million PVCs went uncollected. The percentage of collected PVCs to registered voters was 86.6 per cent even as political actors linked the high rate of the uncollected PVCs to INEC’s faulty distribution strategy.

Path to credible polls  
FOR the fact that some of the problems confronting Nigeria’s electoral system are external to the election management body, stakeholders have predicted that without adequate preparations by the umpire, elections in the country would continue to be rated low.
 
Director of Programmes, Yiaga Africa, Cynthia Mbamalu, told The Guardian that the areas of concerns raised by the commission are germane and have major implication on the credibility of elections in the country, insisting that all issues could be addressed simultaneously. According to her, INEC is a national institution with diverse leadership and departments with responsibilities to carry out specific mandates.

Mbamalu noted that the current electoral reform process must be accorded all the urgency it deserves to ensure that a new Electoral Act was in place before the Anambra governorship election.

She stated: “This will take care of the issue of electronic voting and promote credibility in the electoral process for Anambra. In addition, it provides an opportunity for the new law to be tested in Anambra 2021, Ekiti and Osun 2022 governorship elections before the 2023 general elections.”

On polling unit expansion, Mbamalu said it was long overdue for new polling units to be created. She added that with the growing population, the current 120,000 polling units, which were created in 1996 and have been deployed to conduct elections since 1999, were no longer enough. She stressed the need for INEC to clean up the nation’s current register and ensure that credible voter register that satisfies integrity standards before the next general election is in place.

“This is because the credibility of voter’s register directly impacts on the integrity of the election,” according to Mbamalu. “If we do not have accurate numbers in the register, we will most likely create opportunities for easy manipulation of the votes on election day.”
 
Speaking on the #ENDSARS protest and the likelihood of the movement to influence change in the political space, Mbamalu expressed optimism that the protest would influence the turnout for voter registration and subsequently turnout during election. She said the quality and credibility of the process and the commitment of INEC to engage young people would address voter apathy.

She added: “In addition, young Nigerians will need to ensure that the momentum built during the #ENDSARS protest is sustained with actively such as mobilising young people to move the conversation from social media to the voter registration centres. Young people have the power to determine the outcome of elections in Nigeria.”

Aligning with Mbamalu’s position, CDD director, Idayat Hassan, said the Electoral Act Amendment bill would provide a platform for a free, fair and credible election, stressing that the expansion of the polling units would give opportunity to every qualified voter.
 
Hassan said: “Looking at the times we are in, the coronavirus pandemic and the need to maintain minimal contact with people, physical distancing and all, the expansion also would help reduce the crowd in the old polling units and hopeful reduce the spread of the disease. And this brings us to the e-voting system, which even helps us achieve this. We have to start looking at better ways to address issues, especially with the changing times.”

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Idayat said lack of confidence in the system was responsible for voter apathy, while charging INEC to ensure credible elections in the next three off-season governorship polls in Anambra, Ekiti and Osun States.
 
“We saw what the youths did during the campaign and the #ENDSARS movement was more like an awakening for the younger generation. However, if the #ENDSARS is not kept alive, the youth will go to sleep by 2023. We saw that in the Lagos bye-election; it appeared everyone went back to normal.” She noted that a clean up of the voters’ register would address a lot of concerns and it would be easier for election officials to rid the process of inconsistencies or inaccurate data.

She said; “It will also ensure that what we have is up-to-date data in our system. Civil society organisations across Nigeria have continued to call for the audit of the register to validate the actual number of voters by removing the dead, underaged and multiple registrations from the register.

Executive director, Centre for Transparency Advocacy (CTA), Faith Nwadishi, maintained that the many technological initiatives of the electoral commission couldn’t be implemented without amending the current act. Urging INEC not to backtrack on its planned audit of the voter register, Nwadishi noted that the exercise would help to remove certain irregularities in the register.

She said: “For a very long time, people have been advocating for expansion of polling units to create more access to where they will vote. We also know that E voting cannot be implemented if it is not captured in the Electoral Act. E voting will be ideal in this era of pandemic. The challenging part is that the Electoral Act amendment is beyond the purview or power of INEC. We need to call on the National Assembly and President Buhari to ensure that the Electoral Act is amended and put into force by the president signing it so that innovations by INEC would become tangible and help the electoral process.”

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