BY OKEY NDIRIBE
THE Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, has repeatedly told Nigerians and the international community that it has set for itself the goal of conducting Nigeria’s most credible election next year. The commission’s leadership has seized every opportunity to drum it into the ears of the people that its commitment to organize a highly credible poll is anchored on the belief that it would go a long way to deepen the nation’s democracy.
Indeed, section 73 of the amended 1999 Constitution empowers INEC to review electoral constituencies after an interval of not less than 10 years. For now, the 2015 general elections remain a veritable opportunity to test INEC’s preparedness to give Nigerians something to cheer in the conduct of elections.
Already, Chairman of INEC, Prof. Attahiru Jega has made it clear that part of the efforts to fine tune the procedures that will, ultimately, deliver a credible electoral contest in 2015, is the plan by the commission to embark on constituency delimitation this year. The objective is to create a fair balance of the voting population.
In mid-March, 2013, the INEC boss held discussions with representatives of about 20 political parties on its plan to embark on the exercise ahead of the 2015 polls.
Jega had told his audience that the commission had already worked out a plan for the exercise, and that it would strive to achieve this before the 2015 election. He also briefed the relevant committees of the National Assembly about the commission’s work plan. Ever since, the INEC boss has not looked back while working towards accomplishing this goal.
Re-allocation of constituency boundaries: Speaking to Vanguard, last Thursday, on how far INEC had gone in realising its objective of conducting the exercise, Mr Kayode Idowu, the Special Adviser on Media to the INEC Chairman said: “The exercise has actually commenced. It is not as if we would go to the field and begin to dig the ground in order to delimit constituencies. What we can do is to do a reallocation of boundaries of electoral constituencies with a map. As part of doing that, you would have to do some ground treating. This is like a physical assessment of the population distribution. We would also do geo-spatial mapping and sensitization. The Commission has planned for all these aspects of the exercise.”
Idowu further disclosed that last Tuesday, the National Committee on Constituency delimitation met as part of the process adding that they considered proposals, action plans, strategies and programmes for the execution of the exercise.
According to him: ”Very soon, there would be visits to some communities to sensitise them. This is part of letting the people know about the process and ensure that they see it as scientific. A lot of the work has to do with mapping and then sensitising the public about the rationale for the exercise.”
Idowu further explained that when experts involved in conducting the exercise go to the field, “they would be going there to do an assessment of the exercise,” adding ”we would also sensitise the people whose communities we would visit in order to get them involved in the exercise.”
Earlier, Jega had reportedly said that the electoral agency would not create new senatorial districts and federal constituencies because that is a constitutional matter.
Equality of representation: According to him: “I think we should understand that even the powers that are given to us to delimit constituencies by the constitution and the Electoral Act are limited. For example, senatorial districts are already known. They are three per state, so we cannot create additional senatorial constituencies because these are constitutionally defined, but what we can do is that we can look at the relative sizes in terms of the population of the senatorial district and we can seek to adjust them in order to have equality of representation or near equality because you cannot have perfect equality of representation.”
He further stated that all INEC could do is to redraw boundaries of constituencies in accordance with population quota and other variables adding that it is important for people to understand what the Commission could do and the limitations imposed by the law.
“If you want to have more than 360 federal constituencies, it has to be done through a constitutional amendment. If you want to have more than 109 senatorial districts, it has to be constitutionally amended. Our job is to ensure that the sizes of constituencies in terms of population are as nearly equal as possible in order to achieve the ideal representative democracy.”
The current constituency structures were carved out 18 years ago by the defunct National Electoral Commission of Nigeria (NECON) under the military junta of late Gen. Sani Abacha.
Experts have argued that the growth in population and demographic shifts warrant a review of constituencies.
They have also argued that the current constituency structure has manifested features that are at variance with international best practices, including mal-apportionments and other inequalities that challenge, in a fundamental manner, the principle of equal representation.
It has also been argued that if the principle of one man, one-vote in a single member representative system, which is practiced in Nigeria is to be indeed enthroned in our democratic culture, conscious and deliberate effort must be made to review the constituencies in order to eliminate, or at least reduce to a minimum level, the current imbalances that have been noticed.
Experts have also pointed out that in addition to the population criteria other variables that have to be put into consideration include geographical location, socio- cultural affinity and physical barriers like mountains, rivers and so on.
Jega had observed that ”In the case of Nigeria, because of population dynamics which were noticed even in the last census that was conduced in 2006, there are now remarkable inequalities in terms of the size of constituencies. So, it is important, therefore, that electoral constituencies are delimited.”
Nevertheless, watchers of the nation’s political landscape have opined that one of the major challenges INEC is likely to face in its effort to conduct the exercise is skepticism on the part of the public and the tendency of political actors to manipulate the process.
The INEC boss is aware of the situation and has expressed concern that similar exercises in the past had been politicized, saying “unfortunately in Nigeria, delimiting constituencies has been politically volatile and controversial because it is confused with administrative boundaries.”
He explained that constituency delimitation is different from adjustment of administrative boundaries adding that the latter are used for resource allocation, political or even traditional authorities.
Anticipating these challenges, the Commission has resolved that to successfully carry out the exercise, “the commission must continually engage with stakeholders, with a view to building confidence and mutual trust and disabusing mindsets likely to be imbibed by key stakeholders, particularly, politicians who have vested interests in the exercise.”
Furthermore, INEC would have to ensure that the criteria to be adopted for the exercise is “rational, transparent, impartial and non-partisan” while it “continues to carry its stakeholders along through continuous briefings, enlightenment, consultations, voters’ education and public hearings.
So far, the Commission seems to have adhered to this plan.
Dr. Yunusa Tanko, the National Chairman of the Inter-Party Advisory Council, IPAC, which comprises all registered political parties in the country, spoke along this line when he granted an interview to Vanguard last Thursday.
He confirmed that the electoral body had constantly intimated the council about the planned exercise and “we have attended about two or three meetings with the commission on this matter” and “we feel it is welcome development, which is designed to bring democracy closer to the people of this country.”
He further stated that IPAC had offered some useful advice to INEC on how the exercise should be handled adding that the commission needs to embark on a massive enlightenment campaign to avoid the exercise being misconstrued since it is taking place close to next year’s polls.
Jega had earlier explained that INEC also needed to work with other government agencies. “We have to collaborate with the National population Commission because we need to have accurate officially approved population figures. We have to work with the National Boundaries Commission because we need maps and their technical input. We have to work with a number of agencies that can bring additional value to the work that we will do, and in addition to the boundaries commission and the NPC, we have engaged and interacted with many other federal government agencies.”