By Jide Ojo

Recent reports of violations by underage persons following the local government elections in Kano State are deeply disturbing.   The voter register in Kano State is the one used for the 2015 general election. In July 2016, INEC used the same register to conduct a State Assembly bye-election in Minjibir Constituency.

What therefore happened in the last local government election conducted by the State Electoral Commission? Was the voter register actually used or not?”    – INEC Chairman, Prof. Mahmood Yakubu on Friday, February 16, 2018   set up investigative panel to unravel the reported incidence of underage voting in Kano LG election.

On February 10, 2018, Kano State Independent Electoral Commission conducted elections into the 44 Local Government Areas and 484 Councillorship positions in the state. As usual, the ruling party in the state, All Progressives Congress, won all the contested positions. That is however not the main news. The real gist is that by evening of the Election Day, pictures and video clips of underage voters casting ballot allegedly during the election surfaced in the media. A lot of commentators were of the opinion that there were a lot of undesirable elements in the country’s National Register of Voters.   This is worrisome and heart-rending!

For the records, it was not the first time the country would have issues with her National Register of Voters. For a long time, Voters Registers were compiled manually and without any biometric features of the registrants being captured. That was when Optical Mark Recognition Registration Form was in vogue.   By 2006, ahead of 2007 General Election, the Independent National Electoral Commission decided to capture the biometrics of the registrants. That was when the commission under the leadership of Prof.

Maurice Iwu decided to use the Direct Data Capturing Machines to capture the fingerprints and faces of the registrants to be enlisted on the Voters Register. That exercise was sabotaged and undermined by some unscrupulous elements in INEC who in cahoots with politicians decided to pad the Voters Register with ghost and fictitious names.

Of course, there were a lot of underage voters registered in that exercise. The National Register of Voter was the one used for the deeply flawed 2007 General Election where at least 13 gubernatorial elections were annulled at either tribunal or appellate courts. That election was adjudged by national and international accredited observers as the worst in the political history of Nigeria.

By the time Prof. Attahiru Jega was appointed in June 2010, his commission tried to audit the Voters Register and found out that it was irredeemably bad.   That was what led to the fresh nationwide Voters Registration exercise of January/February 2011 ahead of that year’s April general election. Even at that, the Voters Register was not totally cleaned up in spite of the attempt by the commission to use the Automatic Fingerprint Identification System. AFIS software could only identify and remove multiple registrants. However, there was also significant number of underage registrants who could not be weeded out.

It was the fear that the National Register of Voters is not 100 per cent clean that made the Jega commission to come up with the policy of accreditation before voting during the 2011 and 2015 General Elections. It was the believe of the commission that if accreditation of voters commence nationwide at 8am and ends at 12:30pm in 2011 and 1:30pm in 2015 even if anyone has multiple Permanent Voter Cards, he or she will not be able to vote in more than one place given the fact that there will be restriction of movement on election day and every eligible voter is supposed to be on queue to vote when it commence at 12:30 or 1:30pm.

It was the fact that the NRV is also not completely clean that makes INEC to insist that every voter should obtain Permanent Voter Card. Prior to 2011, people are allowed to vote with Temporary Voter Card. Now, with the introduction of PVC in 2011, INEC went a step further in 2015 to introduce Smart Card Reader to authenticate and verify voters details. All these efforts are to enhance the integrity of our elections.

Ordinarily, if the Registration Officers engaged by INEC, many of whom are ad-hoc staff of the commission, have followed the provisions of the Electoral Act on Voters Registration as well as INEC guidelines on the exercise, there wouldn’t have been this challenge of multiple and underage registrants. Part Three of the Act comprehensively enunciated the guidelines for the conduct of Voters Register and allied matters. Specifically,   section 10 (2)(a,b & c) stipulated that for anyone to be registered to vote, such must produce documentary evidences to support the claim that he or she is eligible to register   in accordance with provision of section 12 of the Act .

Among the documentary evidences required are Birth or Baptismal certificate, National Identity Card, International Passport, National Driver’s License or any other documents that will prove the identity, age and nationality of the applicant. Honestly, this requirement of the law is observed in breach by many of the Registration Officers.

Similar requirement in section 14 of the Act is also largely ignored.   While the Registration Officers may have been pressured or threatened to register underage people as attested to by senior INEC officials who have publicly commented on this raging issue, in many other instances, the rules are simply ignored or not willingly and voluntarily applied. From the moment the Registration Officers compromised, either by error of omission or commission, what the election management body can do thereafter is simply damage control.

Section 19 of the Electoral Act 2010, as amended provides a way out of the dilemma of underage voting as well as that of multiple or erroneous registration. The law says that INEC shall appoint a period of between 5 – 14 days to display the Voters Register for each Local Government, Area Council or Ward for public scrutiny.

This exercise known as Claims and Objections are usually not well publicised and as such many voters are not aware of how to engage the process. Section 50 of the Electoral Act also states that candidates and Polling Agents can challenge the right of a person to receive ballot paper. The ground of challenge, in my own opinion, include when such potential voter is deemed to be underage.

It is a good thing that INEC has decided to set up a powerful technical committee under the leadership of a National Commissioner to investigate the claim of underage voting in Kano on February 10.

The commission has also promised to make the outcome public. What INEC can do in addition is to ensure adequate protection for its staff currently engaged to conduct Continuous Voters Registration exercise. This is to ward off community leaders and politicians who sometime mount pressure on the ROs to register ineligible persons. Also, a well-publicised claims and objections exercise must be conducted well ahead of the next general elections. Thirdly, political parties and civil society should henceforth endeavor to deploy accredited party agents and observers to watch and report on the ongoing CVR.

The commission should conduct community outreach to enlighten the people on eligibility requirements to register as well as hold stakeholder meetings with political parties to admonish  their members to desist from pressurising Registration Officers to commit electoral offences. Identified masterminds of underage and multiple registrations must be properly investigated and prosecuted in accordance with the provisions of section 24 of the Electoral Act.   Election is a multi-stakeholder exercise and everyone must play its role nobly.

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