By Tonnie Iredia
We have quite a large number of people in this country who are permanently cynical. They never see anything good about government and its agencies. Many of them belong to one of my constituencies- the media.
Only two days back, I almost lost my temperament over an argument with one of them concerning the on-going registration of voters. He was angry with the entire process.
His first grouse was that the exercise began on a shaky note. I quickly reminded him that Professor Attahiru Jega and his team did not have much time to prepare for the assignment. For me really, an electoral commission needs no less than one year to prepare for an election.
Shouting now at the top of his voice, he asked me to explain why Jega did not employ one little fraction of the courage people like me claim he has to insist from the outset that he would not accept the job because of the obvious time constraint. My friend was really grieved that the past exercise took the same pattern, meaning that nothing has changed.
I insisted that many things have changed. After all, unlike before, the present electoral body gets whatever it wants; all the money it asked for was released, and even schools were closed at its request. Before walking out on me, he raised two issues which unsettled me a bit.
The first has to do with the additional funds which the commission says it needs to cover the period of extension approved for the exercise to accommodate those yet to be registered. He feels it is wrong for the commission to include the purchase of extra materials in the addition funding it is seeking now.
The problem with the present registration, according to my friend, has nothing to do with shortage of materials, so, buying additional paper or ink etc. should not arise. Rather, the problem was that of faulty machines which delayed the exercise making it impossible for it to be concluded on schedule. How can materials meant to register 70 million people be exhausted when half of the figure had not been registered? This, I believe our younger colleagues would take up at the earliest opportunity for a press conference with the relevant electoral officials.
The second issue my friend raised concerns the discovery of four registration centres in the deep Nziko forest at Nteje in Oyi Local Government Area of Anambra State. Since Jega got schools closed for the exercise, my friend wanted to know why the exercise was not done on the premises of a school or is it that the so-called forest has no school. This prompted me to search for the details of the forest registration.
I was able to lay my hands on reports in the media which said that shock and disbelief could best describe the mood of Anambra State Deputy Governor, Mr. Emeka Sibeudu and the Resident Electoral Commissioner (REC) for the state, Prof. Chukwuemeka Onukaogu, when they led security operatives to discover four registration centres at a shrine in a deep forest. Onukaogu, who was reportedly shock-stricken, said: “I have heard of floating/flying polling booths.
Today, I have seen one. I am sad that there are four machines wasting here, whereas there are no machines in Onitsha, Eke Awka, Ozubulu, Nnewi and parts of Anaocha where thousands of people are waiting to be registered.” It is unfortunate that the REC had to be led to discover certain centres within his jurisdiction. It is more interesting that he was in more shock having observed that he found that the “floating registration centres” deep in the forest were documented from the INEC Abuja headquarters.
Senate President David Mark was thus apt in his charge to Jega that, “I would advise you to move out of your office and see what happens in the field. We are reasonably reassured that the exercise isn’t where it is supposed to be.”
Those of us who clapped for INEC when it eloquently used ‘equity’ to defend the closure of private schools which it did not need for the exercise along with the public schools which were the only ones it actually needed, now have cause to worry. This is because the performance of the commission has turned out to be that of ‘he who did not come to equity with clean hands’ in a country where the legal framework for elections has remained defective.
Elsewhere, the Electoral Act which is the Principal Law for elections is not treated with frivolity as we do. Many issues which are in our Electoral Act are in other climes covered by electoral guides issued from time to time by the electoral body. But, we seem to have a penchant for originating legal provisions for elections.
In January 2010, an amendment to the 2010 Electoral Act was passed to allow the forthcoming general elections to be moved from January to April 2011. Later in December 2010, the Senate passed 47 clauses in the second amendment and withdrew section 87 (11) which had already been passed by the House of Representatives, making lawmakers part of the National Executive Committee (NEC), of political parties. We now have a third amendment to the Electoral Act which provides for the registration of voters to end 30 days before elections, instead of the 60 days earlier stipulated.
What is not too clear is whether our legislature knows the correct meaning of the term ‘election’. In common usage, election is understood to mean ‘voting’ or the ‘casting of ballots’. The perception is certainly misleading because the term is far more complex than that. An election is not just an event but a process of segmented events. The casting of ballots is only one of such events.
Consequently, it is obviously inappropriate to equate the whole process of election with the casting of ballots. In addition, an election does not begin or end with the casting of ballots. Before the casting of ballot, we have the delimitation of constituencies, the registration of voters and the nomination of candidates. What this suggests is that during an event such as the registration of voters, the election process has begun.
Thus we ought not to be amending a law for an event that is already in progress. It is, however, fashionable to do so in Nigeria because we hardly plan and where there is some level of planning, it is never adhered to.
Well, we have to commend our Senate which reconvened a week ago and immediately ordered the reopening of schools. Our legislature does not normally operate so simply like that. By tradition, it would have amended the Electoral Act to prohibit the closure of schools during any electoral event. Cheers, distinguished.