Law & Human Rights

May 20, 2010

The 2011 elections and the purification of the voters register

By Festus Okoye

The Acting Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission, Prince Solomon Shoyebi in his first address to the nation promised to restore credibility to the electoral process. He asserted that the major task before the electoral commission is the full sensitization of the electoral process, and the purification of the voter’s register.

I agree with the Acting Chairman that the purification of the voters register is a major issue with the electoral process. I also agree that a proper foundation for the credibility of an election and its characterization as free, fair and transparent must boegin with the credibility of the voters’ register.

It is also legitimate for the Acting Chairman of the Electoral Management Board to worry about the credibility of the voters register. A lot of Nigerians believe, rightly or wrongly that any election conducted under the framework of the present voters register can never be credible as the register is highly compromised and flawed in every material particular.

Some Political Parties’ in Nigeria genuinely or out of abundant mischief also lament that the voters register is not credible and have vowed to boycott any election conducted with the existing register of voters. They complain that the register is baked and padded in favour of the ruling party and that there is no way they can win an election with such a register.  Some eligible registrants on their own part lament their inability to either register or locate their names on the existing register of voters. Some that registered and are able to locate their names have their essential data inappropriately entered. Some with voters’ card are unable to locate their names on the register and some that have the voters’ card cannot locate their names on the register of voters.

The Electoral Management Body on their own part laments the use of ad hoc staff with allegiances to forces outside the Commission for the registration of voters. They lament the unwholesome practices of some political parties and politicians who engage in “community registration” and bloat the voters register.

The sad situation is that the political parties, the politicians, the Electoral Management Body, the various communities and the government are all in denial and have all, at various times declined responsibility for the flawed voters register in use in Nigeria.  I say this because some of those complaining and asserting that the voters register is not credible are not coming to equity with clean hands.  Unfortunately, no concrete study and analysis has been carried out on the problems and challenges of voters’ registration in Nigeria. However, my own personal experiences during the 2003 general elections and the 2007 elections attests to the fact that the challenges of voters registration are multi dimensional.

I Chaired the Transition Monitoring Group during the 2003 elections. In one of the polling stations and states monitored, we came across what one may call a colony of under aged voters. We challenged them and some of them ran away from the queue and others looked up to their pay masters for guidance and direction. One of those that we presume propped them up and invariably procured voters cards for them mischievously informed us that the juveniles on the line waiting to vote are of age but are small because their people do not grow tall.

During the 2007 elections, we witnessed the same pattern of registering and encouraging under aged voters. Some communities registered their sons and daughters who live outside the communities including those in Diaspora. In other communities the voters register is of no consequence because elections do not in the main take place. Votes are therefore allocated based on set criteria and other unwholesome considerations.

There are two inter-related options open to the Nigerian people relating to voters registration before the 2011 elections. The first option is to conduct a fresh registration of voters using Direct Data Capture Technology used for the 2006 registration of voters. The second option is to display the existing voters register and consequentially update same using the existing data and technology used in the registration of voters in 2006. The other option is to completely abandon the existing voters register and adopt a new technology to generate a new register on the ground that no amount of clean up can wipe out the damage done to the existing register. All the options pose challenges and are problematic. Their problematic are related to the timing of their use and the cost elements involved in bringing them to fruition considering the fact that the 2011 elections is just by the corner.

Before the 2003 elections, the Electoral Management Body conducted enumeration of voters. The bulk of the staff that conducted the enumeration were recruited on an ad-hoc basis and poorly trained. To compound the challenges of voters’ registration, the electoral management body could not use a total of 55,000 cameras acquired for photos since the vendor could not supply the requisitioned 120,000 cameras in a timely manner. In 2006, the Independent National Electoral Commission conducted a pilot registration using the Optical Mark Registration (OMR) with photo images.

The registration officers had problems shading the forms. The photo capture “encountered many difficulties, including rechargeable battery problems, shading, slow processing speed, storage difficulties and flash failures”.  Moreover, considering the limited time frame to organize the 2007 election, it was reasoned that scanners and processing centres may be stretched too thin if a new registration is needed based on OMR forms. Despite the disadvantages of the Optical Mark Registration, it was clear that the hardware and software for this process was already available for INEC to use. Some of the INEC staff had some experience in handling the OMR registration and the existing database compiled in 2002 and 2003 were compiled based on OMR forms.