By BEN AGANDE
When the Senate summoned the chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission, (INEC), Professor Attahiru Jega, to appear before it to explain reasons for the frustration being encountered by Nigerians trying to register as voters in the forthcoming elections, it was thought that the lawmakers would give him such a dressing down that when he leaves the chambers, he would bow his head in shame. But, after spending more than four answers answering questions from the senators, Jega emerged largely unscathed with a reinforced confidence that his oft repeated assurance that the elections would be credible may be true after all.
Since the commencement of the registration exercise two weeks ago, the problems that trailed it fundamentally shook the confidence Nigerians had invested in the chairman of the commission that he may perhaps be the electoral messiah that Nigerians have craved for.
With a character trait that many Nigerians argue is almost unassailable, the appointment of the professor as the chairman of INEC brought about a resurgence of desires by Nigerians to fully participate in the process to elect leaders they can hold accountable.
But when Nigerians trooped out to register on the first day of the exercise, what they got was neither contemplated nor was it remotely associated with the expectations they had of the chairman of INEC who came into the job highly recommended. The exercise on the first day was in the words of Jega himself a ‘disaster’.
From a projected seventy million voters to be captured after the exercise, the INEC boss and his team of largely members of the National Youth Service Corps could only capture a paltry 250,000 prospective voters nationwide. It was a disaster of monumental proportion for Nigerians who gradually had started believing the vaunting rhetoric of Jega that their votes would count this time around.
On the first day, what manifested at the registration centres included the rejection of finger prints by the direct data capture machines; apparent incompetence of some members of the NYSC in handling the machines; the failure of some of the components of the machines and other sundry limitations that made some observers to question the wisdom in investing so hugely preparing for an exercise that did not inspire hope.
The frustrations of the nation found a common expression in their representatives at the National Assembly. On their first day of resumption from a month long Christmas and New Year recess, the senators questioned the wisdom of investing so much and getting so little in return. These frustrations were put in proper perspective in a motion proposed by Senator Victor Ndoma-Egba, Senate deputy leader.
Coming under Order 42 and 52 of the Senate rules, Ndoma-Egba said the exercise was characterized by faulty registration machines, unavailability of the machines in some communities as well as poor motivation and training of the officials manning the facilities.
The senator’s motion was the battle cry for his colleagues who resolved that the INEC chairman must appear before them to offer credible explanation for his ‘failure’.
So when he walked into the Senate chambers on Wednesday, many watchers expected to see a subdued man coming to make excuses for his failure. But Jega in a polite but firm manner punctured the arguments raised by the senators that the exercise may fail.
The INEC boss took the Senate though a session on why he thinks the exercise, despite the initial hiccups was still on course.
On the rejection of fingers by the thumb print component of the DDC machines, Jega said, “There was additional problem with the setting of the finger printing machine from the first day where we discovered that the setting was very high and that setting was for the highest standard of finger print for forensic purpose and election is not a forensic matter.
That is why we had these difficulties because the scanners were very sensitive. If you have any problem with your finger whether is it stained with oil or whatsoever, it will refuse to accept you.
”So the first day was a disaster because the machine was just rejecting anybody that came to register.
“But the second day, we had discovered this and we have taken measures to correct it and we had already by the second day start deploying what we called a patch to address the problem of finger print scanner. And as many Nigerians have testified, by the fourth day, we had been able to increase the registration remarkably. Obviously there are still some additional challenges and many people have been identifying them, we recognized these challenges.
“If you recall sir, in 2006 when the registration started, there were barely 1,000 direct data capture machine. But we have been able to deploy on the day it started, at least 107, 000 direct data capture machine. So if there are problems sir, frankly, as I speak to you now, we have reached a comfortable level. On the first day of registration, we have the statistic, nationwide, we were only able to register about 250,000 because of those problems.
He painted a cheery picture that with the improvement brought by the commission, the exercise would end up a success.
He explained: “On the first day nationwide, we were able to register only 250, 000 voters but as we deployed equipment and software and they became more efficient, we have improved. As I speak with you now, by two days ago, the average registration per day is 4.3 million.
By two days ago, we had registered 28.5 million Nigerians. On an average of 4.3 million per day and with things improving, the average is going up. By our own estimation, by Saturday when we close, we would have registered between 23 and 25 million Nigerians. If we get an additional extension of seven days still using that projection of 4.3 million per day, by the end of that one week we will be able to register more than 65 million Nigerians”.