INEC Polling Units and the Future of Elections - OpEd by Dr. Reuben Abati

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Tuesday, June 22, 2021 / 03:08 PM / OpEd by Dr. Reuben Abati / Header Image Credit: Ripples Nigeria

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Some of the major challenges bedevilling the electoral process in Nigeria, and thus abbreviating the integrity of democracy in the country include over the years: lack of access to polling units, the location of polling units in problematic parts, overcrowding, conflict, violence, the designation of places like shrines, mosques, churches and private residences as polling units which grant the owners of such premises unassigned powers of control over the voting process. There is also the general climate of fear, opaqueness, insecurity and manipulation during every election season.  Last week, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) made notable progress in addressing these challenges when it announced the completion of its delienation of new polling units for the country.


The last time new polling units were defined in Nigeria was 25 years ago by the defunct National Electoral Commission of Nigeria (NECON), as INEC was then known. At the time the country had on the voters' register, 50 million voters. Over the years, it worked with an estimate of 120, 000 polling units across the country but an eventual census put the exact figure at 119, 973 polling units. As the number of voters nationwide increased, the number of polling units remained static. Section 22 of the Electoral Act says each polling unit is not supposed to have more than 500 registered voters. But as more persons attained the age of franchise (18 in Nigeria), the polling units became congested, with many of them serving up to 2, 000 to 3, 000 voters. As new communities also emerged, especially in urban centres, voters had to travel long distances to get to the next available Polling Unit (PU). Many did not even bother, because of the stress involved, and so voter turn-out in every election was not a true reflection of the people's commitment. Analysts often explained this away superficially as voter apathy whereas there were underlying constraints that needed to be addressed.


In 2007, the predecessor of the current INEC Chairman, namely Professor Attahiru Jega tried to update the polling units in the country to reflect the changing voter statistics and demographics. The exercise ran into troubled waters on the grounds of ethnicity and religion. Jega's INEC was accused of trying to give advantage to the North. He tried again in 2014. The exercise was, after a pattern, sabotaged by the politics of suspicion and motive-reading. In 2019, Jega's successor, Professor Mahmoud Yakubu also tried to bring the polling units in line with realities. He also failed. What is common to all those earlier efforts is that the exercises were proposed very close to the elections in 2007, 2015, and 2019, and hence, in a country where there is mutual suspicion and angst, and doubts about the integrity of electoral umpires, the populace was sceptical. So, what has Mahmoud Yakubu done this time that is different? It has been a week since the new polling units were announced: a total of 56, 872 new polling units have been added, bringing the country's total number of polling units up to 176, 846. Despite the fact that the 19 states of the North and the FCT got additional 31, 196 polling units, and the 17 Southern states an additional 25, 676 polling units, there has been no usual outcry about ethnicity and imbalance or complaints about any surreptitious attempt to manipulate the figures. The expected reaction may be delayed, especially as INEC has promised to publish the entire list of polling units in 37 volumes ahead of the commencement of the Continuous Voters' Registration Exercise on June 28.


What is different however, is that INEC has conducted this exercise far ahead of the 2023 General elections. The new polling units have been created out of voting points and voting point settlements which the electoral body introduced during the 2019 general elections to enhance access and the sovereignty of the voter. When the process of reviewing what was done in 1996 began, the Joint Senate and House of Representatives Committee on INEC received over 10, 000 requests from 26 states of the Federation for new polling units to be created in their areas. In the end, INEC has arrived at an addition of 56, 872 polling units. It also consulted not just the National Assembly but groups in civil society, including the political parties and development partners. The inclusiveness of the process must have helped but INEC must now go a step further and publish the entire volumes of the designated polling units. Transparency is crucial. That should provide opportunities for scrutiny, review and amendments where necessary. 


INEC's efforts in solving a 25-year electoral riddle is commendable. With the expansion of polling units, voter access and representation will be enhanced. The average voter would not have to travel across kilometres to get to the nearest polling station. The problem of congestion has also been addressed. Room has also been created for the test-running of the new structure long before the 2023 General elections. These new polling units will first be used beginning with the November 6, 2021 Gubernatorial election in Anambra state, and subsequently in the Area Council elections in the Federal Capital Territory, February 12, 2022, Ekiti state gubernatorial election on June 18, 2022 and the one in Osun state scheduled for July 16, 2022.


What many Nigerians would even find more instructive is the announcement by the INEC Chairman that 749 polling units have been removed from inappropriate places: shrines, churches, mosques and private residences. The figure that has been announced is probably modest. The publication of the polling units must provide room for the electorate to help identify more of such strange locations where the integrity of the electoral process has been routinely compromised. This may sound strange to the international community or even to the uninitiated in the mores of Nigerian politics. But it is true. Can you imagine anyone walking into an open, communal shrine in a village, with the Chief Priest wearing INEC tags, asking the voter to support a particular party? How much freedom of choice can voters exercise under such circumstances? Every election season, pastors and imams also become agents for candidates and political parties as they struggle to support members of their own faith, and clients. They help to rig elections and cheat in God's name. Nigerian clerics do not see anything sinful or criminal in this regard. Their moral compass is dictated by the conviction that "heaven indeed only helps those who help themselves." There is so much doubtful spirituality in Nigerian politics.


Traditional rulers are just as notorious. You can't run for an electoral office in Nigeria without visiting the traditional rulers in your constituency.  They are regarded as men of influence and authority who can determine electoral outcomes by simply telling their people what to do. Many of them are partisan politicians in traditional garbs. When they tell you that a traditional ruler does not promote any political party, or that he is everyone's father, believe that and deceive yourself. Even if a particular traditional ruler would not support you and you know, you still must go to his palace to pay homage and receive prayers and the blessing of ancestors. Yes, those ancestors! Nigeria must be one of the very few countries in the world where the dead also have a say in elections: they are served kolanuts, bitter kola and exotic drinks!  During the 2019 elections, we visited a particular traditional ruler, a few days to the election. When the king invited us to his living room after a reception in the palace premises, the first thing I noticed was a big box beside the king's throne. It contained voters' cards! Someone had actually told us that every election season, this particular king controls most of the polling units in his domain, and no one would dare challenge his directives. On election day, there were reports in other communities as well, of traditional rulers similarly acting as party contractors, and landlords threatening tenants with eviction or increased rent.


It is therefore, precisely for this same reason that I think good as the expansion and enhanced delineation of polling units by INEC may be, certain other critical steps would still have to be taken to safeguard the integrity of Nigerian elections. First on my list is the legal framework for elections. In 2018, the proposed amendment of the Electoral Act 2010 ran into troubled waters because the President refused to give his assent to the Bill, the Electoral Act Amendment Bill 2018, as passed by the National Assembly.  The excuse then was that the process was out of time, given the closeness of the submitted Bill as amended, to the 2019 general elections. The President refused to give his assent on three different occasions.  The 9th National Assembly, upon its inauguration in June 2019, promised to make the Electoral Act Amendment Bill, a major priority to be treated expeditiously. Public hearings on the Bill have been concluded since December 2020, there was even a retreat of lawmakers over it in January 2021 but the federal legislators have been crawling at snail speed over this Bill and others, such as The Petroleum Industry Bill. They have been playing deaf and dumb.


It is as if there is a deliberate attempt to frustrate demands by the electorate and other stakeholders for a modernisation of the electoral framework in Nigeria in line with observed realities and omissions. The Senate President, Dr Ahmad Lawan even promised that the Electoral Act Amendment Bill 2021 would be ready by May 2021. One major concern is that in 2021, Nigeria should be able to have an electronic voting system, INEC must have a national data base through which results can be collated real-time with the aid of technology in order to ensure the transparency of outcomes. Many stakeholders have also called for a review of the cost of electoral participation, access for persons living with disabilities, and specific provisions to enhance women participation. There is obviously no political will to reform the electoral system. Ahead of the Continuous Voters Registration exercise beginning June 28, INEC has now introduced an online Voter Enrolment Device to enable voters register online. It should be possible for Nigerians to vote online as well. A hybrid system can be experimented with, whereby disadvantaged voters without access to technology can vote physically at polling units while in the urban centres, technology can be deployed. For this to work, INEC must have enough time to test run the new reforms.  As things stand, the extant Electoral Act 2010 makes no allowance for the use of technology. Without the much-needed electoral reform, INEC's innovations may be of no serious consequence.


The reviews of the 2019 elections by INEC and the high volume of litigations that followed the elections clearly indicated that the politicians and the political parties are part of the problem, if not the main problem, with elections in Nigeria. In the absence of an Electoral Offences Tribunal and the lack of capacity to pursue electoral offenders, big or small, to bring them to justice, Nigerian politicians have learnt to operate like bandits. They kidnap votes, disrupt the system, cheat, rig, promote violence with the aid of able-bodied thugs, high on dangerous, mind-altering drugs, and they get away with it. INEC Chairman Mahmoud Yakubu has also been preaching to Nigerian politicians to ensure internal democracy among their ranks, and to avoid a situation whereby excessive litigations place electoral outcomes at the mercy of the courts. Professor Yakubu's admonitions sound like mere wishful thinking. For the Nigerian politician, the end justifies the means. He is groomed to win elections by any means possible, and those means do not exclude the assassination of opponents, arson, blackmail, and assault. The key strategy is this: win at all costs and let the opponent go to court. When the matter gets to the courts, another level of mischief is initiated. Nigerian judges are not as neutral as they should be in election matters. From dubious arithmetic to inverted judicial activism, Nigerian courts have gifted elections in surprising manners without ever stating their reasons. The INEC Chairman may preach as he wishes, but what powers does he have to stop the Nigerian judiciary from jumping into the arena of partisan politics?


Insecurity is another thing to worry about. In the last two years alone, 42 INEC facilities have been attacked in 14 different locations across the country. It got so bad INEC had to appeal to the Federal Government to declare a state of emergency over INEC units nationwide. The leadership of the electoral body also visited the President to present a detailed report. They were told that the government would ensure that those attacking INEC facilities will soon have "the shock of their lives." Nobody knows what that means. What is known is that the biggest threat to future elections is the general insecurity in the country. INEC has increased the number of polling units. It does not have enough staff to man every polling unit. Every election season, it recruits ad hoc staff, which means from November 6, 2021 in Anambra, INEC would recruit more ad hoc staff. But who will allow his or her daughter or relation to work for INEC when there are threats that no election will be allowed in the South East? With kidnappers and separatists running riot?  It is the same in the South West where promoters of the Oduduwa Nation have warned politicians to stay away from the 2023 elections. Will the Nigerian government provide security and protect the integrity of future elections? Otherwise, INEC will be grossly handicapped.


Matters have not been helped by the President's contemptuous and divisive rhetoric on the key issues agitating the minds of the people. President Buhari says nobody will be allowed to restructure Nigeria under his watch because there is nothing to restructure. "No country will allow that", he says. He is also opposed to the idea of a completely new Constitution. He has declared that his government will speak to those who want to dismember Nigeria in "the language they will understand". President Buhari at the twilight moment of his tenure should be more concerned about his legacy. The least he can do, is to leave behind a Nigeria that does not tip over the edge of the precipice, after him.        

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