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More polling units will enable voters freely choose leaders, says Okoye

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Festus Okoye

National Commissioner and Chairman, Information and Voter Education, Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Barr. Festus Okoye, in this interview, speaks on the Commission’s plan to increase access and reduce politicisation of location of polling units, as well as create safe environment for citizens to exercise their franchise. SODIQ OMOLAOYE reports.

Nigeria presently has 119,973 polling units and an additional 57,000 voting points. How many new polling units is INEC planning to create?
The essence of the initiative is to expand voter access to polling units and to give meaning to the sovereign right of Nigerians to free choice. The right to vote is meaningless without a place to vote, which must also be conducive and accessible. Voter access to polling units in Nigeria is in crisis and the Commission is engaging Nigerians to break the vicious cycle of over politicisation of the location of polling units in the country.

Presently, there are 119, 973 polling units serving a total voter population of 84,004,084. The Commission established the units in 1996 to serve a total voter population of 50 million. In 1999, the total registered voter population increased to 57,938,945. In 2003 and 2007, the voter population increased to 60, 823,022 and 61, 528,040 respectively.

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In 2007, the Commission responded to the crisis occasioned by the increase in the number of voters and the overcrowding in polling units through the creation of ‘Baby Polling Units’ with mother polling units in the same vicinity. This did not solve the problem and created its own unique challenge of over-voting in baby polling units leading to the nullification of votes in Mother Polling Units.

In 2011, the Commission created voting points and the challenge remained as the voting points were still clustered in the same vicinity and attached to the main polling unit. The stop-gap measure increased the spectre of overcrowding and underpinned the urgency of a permanent solution to the challenge.

In 2014, the Commission sought to create 30, 027 polling units in addition to the 119, 973. But the effort did not materialise on account of the politicization of the establishment and possibly lack of adequate consultation before the exercise.

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In 2016, the Commission created Voting Point Settlements to solve the challenge of new settlements in the Federal Capital Territory Abuja and ease the burden of those living in under-served areas.

In 2019, the Commission conducted elections with 119, 973 Polling Units and 57, 023 Voting Points and Voting Point Settlements. Over the years, Nigerians have become familiar with the points and their locations. Unfortunately, people go through unimaginable stress to access the units and voting points that are clustered in the same location.

Now, our focus is not on the number of polling units to be established. Our objective is the expansion of access to the units and servicing under-served areas in the country. We are focused on locating polling units in appropriate places and taking the units to the people. We are determined to make polling units fit for purpose.

We are committed to a safe and secure environment for the exercise of franchise.

The Commission has an approved threshold of 750 to 1000 registered voters per polling unit. The number of registered voters remains the same no matter the number of units established. The Commission cannot give all the technical details relating to the conversion of Voting Points to Polling Units at this point as it will map out all the locations and under-served areas and engage the communities. The guidelines for the relocation and location of the Voting Points as new Polling Units will be made public and will take into consideration challenges of overcrowding, geographical difficulty and conflict areas.

Some of the voting points will remain at their present location and become autonomous polling units. The existing threshold will serve as a guide but ultimately our field experience and engagement with stakeholders will be the major determinant of the number of points that will be relocated to become autonomous polling units.

At the end of the exercise, Nigeria will exit the phenomenon of voting points and voting point settlements. We cannot deal with all the technical and practical details of the conversion at a conceptual level. The ground-truthing will be the major determinant of the number of voting points to be converted to full-fledged polling units.

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Following the outcry previous attempts generated, which forced the idea to be dropped, how confident is the Commission that the current process would not suffer same fate?
The Commission is consulting widely and engaging all relevant stakeholders in the electoral process. We have put all the cards on the table relating to the issue of voting points and polling units. The Commission is not creating new electoral wards or registration areas nor is it engaging in redistricting. The boundaries of local governments and states will in no way be affected by the relocation of voting points and conversion as polling units. The number of registered voters will be used in the determination of the voting point threshold.

The conversion of voting points and voting point settlements to full-fledged polling units will not increase the registered voter population of any state. Our goal is to give Nigerians a pleasant voting experience. We believe that the previous exercise suffered from over-politicisation and lack of adequate consultation. Ethnic and religious merchants and entrepreneurs will not stand in the way of the Commission as we are determined to give life to the vote and restore its value.

So, this process is not about allocation or awarding of polling units. It is not about sharing palliatives or resources based on ethnic and religious consideration. It is not a constituency project that must be attracted and sited. The only advantage this exercise confers is to lessen the suffering of those that want to exercise their democratic franchise. It will lessen overcrowding at polling units. It will guarantee safe environment for voting and it will make for proper organisation of polling units.

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INEC said it has received almost 10,000 requests for creation of additional polling units, but that the actualization process will take a while. How soon could the Commission implement this?
The requests for the establishment of polling units are a reflection of the crisis bedeviling the voting centres in Nigeria. These requests are unsolicited and will not form the basis for the relocation of the units. The guidelines and criteria for the relocation of voting points will depend on the population threshold of a particular polling unit and this will also depend on the number of voting points that will be moved out of a particular location. The voting points as at present are dependent on the registered voters in a particular polling unit.

The present consultation and conversion will mark the end of voting points. The present exercise will see to the roll out of clear and verifiable guidelines for the establishment of polling units. Thereafter, the Commission will exercise its powers under section 42 of the Electoral Act 2010 (as amended) to establish sufficient number of polling units in each registration area and allot voters to such polling units. The law empowers the Commission to establish polling units and the power remains theoretical and empty if the Commission cannot exercise it. After the present exercise, the establishment of polling units will be routinized and administrative.

Should Nigerians expect a significant increase in the cost of election following creation of new polling units?
The conversion of Voting Points and Voting Point Settlements into full-fledged polling units will not necessarily increase the cost of elections. Presently, the Voting Points and Voting Point Settlements have the full complement of Presiding Officers (VP) and Assistant Presiding Officers. The Commission makes provision for their sensitive and non-sensitive materials. The increase in cost will be marginal and this may be in the area of providing adequate security for the new polling units.

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Creation of new polling units should be a simple administrative exercise because the electoral act empowered INEC to do so. However, it does seem to have become cumbersome. What is INEC doing to ensure it doesn’t have to go through this tedious process in the future in creating more PUs?
We have produced a document known as The State of Access to Polling Units in Nigeria. We have documented all the issues involved in the establishment of polling units in Nigeria. We have documented the challenges around the use of voting points and voting point settlements. We have gone to this extent because the Commission does not want to pass through this valley anymore. The guidelines for the establishment of polling units will be available and in the public domain. The key issues will revolve around proper location, better location and professional organisation of polling units.

How is lack of a central citizens database affecting the process?
The Commission has the largest database of Nigerians and this will increase when the Commission begins its Continuous Voters Registration. Poor regional and urban planning affects the ability of the Commission to plan well. The Constitution and the Electoral Act give the Commission the exclusive right, power and responsibility to register those qualified to be registered as voters. Therefore, the existence of a central database does not in any way affect the constitutional and legal responsibilities of the Commission.

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Is the March target for creation of new PUs still feasible, considering that Continuous Voters Registration (CVR) is also expected to begin after the creation of PUs?
The framework for converting voting points and voting point settlements to full-fledged polling units will be tested during the technical dry runs. The practical challenges in the field may entail the adjustment of few of the conceptual issues. The Commission will comb the nooks and crannies of the country to determine the appropriate location of the units. The Geographical Information System (GIS) of the Commission will produce the maps of the location of the polling units, their voting points and surrounding areas to give a sense of areas that the relocated voting points may serve. These will guide the Commission in the conversion and relocation to suitable places.

Public places that are centrally located and accessible will be the preferred destination of the voting points. We are following our timelines and will adjust the timelines based on our experiences in the field. We will not be fixated about monthly or quarterly targets. Issues will be compounded if we rush into CVR without sorting out the appropriate location of polling units. CVR will take place and we shall engage Nigerians the moment we are done with the conversion of polling units on when CVR will start. But we are desirous of completing both projects on time.

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