By Owei Lakemfa
NIGERIA became a besieged country in this year’s general elections. It is like the Republic is at war. Even the wars against terrorism, banditry and criminality, have taken a back seat. One main campaign leading to the elections, is that all voters must get their Permanent Voter’s Card, PVC. Even to be seen walking on the streets on election days which have been decreed ‘No Movement’ days, can invite dire consequences. But you can be saved arrest if you prove with your PVC that you are on your way to vote.
Over 11 million voters are barred from casting their ballot in the elections because they failed to collect their PVCs. The PVC has become a symbol of patriotism, the only passport to vote, yet, it is sold by some voters and is a priced commodity amongst politicians.
The country became increasingly militarised after President Muhammadu Buhari declared exactly a week ago that anybody found snatching a ballot box, will pay with his life. He then gave instructions to the military, police and other security agencies to deal ruthlessly with ballot box snatchers. Yet, none of these, theoretically, are in charge of elections. In fact, the policemen at polling booths are not supposed to carry arms while the military ought to be invisible during elections. The Chief of Army Staff, Lieutenant-General Tukur Yusuf Buratai, called a meeting of his chiefs instructing them to carry out the President’s directives. But when the People’s Democratic Party, PDP, Presidential candidate, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar cautioned the military not to carry out unconstitutional and illegal orders, Buratai demanded an apology; one he knows will never come. The Chief of Air Staff, Air Marshall Sadique Abubakar went a step further than Buratai by threatening to punish any of his commanders in whose Areas of Responsibility, AORs, electoral challenges occur. How do you hold an officer accountable for elections he did not conduct and actions of politicians he may not even know? With these, the Nigerian Armed Forces and security services were fully dragged into partisan politics.
The Presidential elections were shifted five hours to the vote on February 16 because the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, had operational and logistical problems; primarily, it could not move so-called sensitive materials including ballot papers and result sheets across the country in time for the elections.
The first general elections in Nigeria was held on September 20, 1923, that is 96 years ago! Given this, and technological advances, Nigeria does not need to be confronted with these avoidable challenges and sterile debates on the role of the military; elections are completely civil matters which the police under the directive of the INEC is equipped to handle.
Unfortunately, the political class in order to gain mileage, continues to subject the country to ancient electoral rules and analogue voting system. Even a step as basic as transferring electronically, the result sheets signed by party agents at polling booths, is rejected in favour of manual transfer by officials who can compromise them, or on roads where they can be seized by unscrupulous politicians.
Nigeria with 144,631,678 active cell phones as at December, 2018 – which amounts to over 85 per cent of the population – does not need to conduct most of its elections in polling centres, insist that a voter must be physically present, have a PVC or must use ballot boxes. The basic information the INEC requires before registering the voter, is the same required to register a cell phone SIM card, apply for international passport, driver’s licence, Bank Verification Number, BVN, or National Identity Card. In fact, the Immigration requires detailed information like your village/town and names of parents before you can be issued a passport. So why can’t a registered voter use any of these in place of the almighty PVC? The PVC should be for the voter’s reference; some confirmation that he has been registered, it should not be his only passport to vote. If I say, in Alaska, United States, all you need to vote is your driver’s licence, State ID card, birth certificate, passport, hunting or fishing licence, some may argue that we are not as ‘advanced’ as America. The same if I inform that all a public servant in Alabama needs to vote is his identity card, or in the case of a student, his college identity. So let me restrict my reference to India, a fellow Third World country, with the same British colonial masters. You don’t need a voter’s card to vote in India, what is required is to have your name registered in the electoral roll of your constituency. Then you can vote with any acceptable identity card, it can even be your ration card.
The high Nigeria population cannot be an excuse; while we have 84.2 million registered voters with only 72.8 million having PVCs, India now has almost 900 million voters. In 2014, India had 814.5 million eligible voters and 1,600 political parties, where Nigeria has 91 parties.
There are those who may argue that we have a low Western education rate. This is true with 13.2 million out of school children. But that is entirely our fault as a country. A self-inflicted injury because Nigeria produced its first European university graduate in 1611, 404 years ago! That was when Olu Atuwatse (Dom Domingo) later, Atuwase I of the Itsekiri Empire, graduated in Latin and Religion from the University of Coimbra, Portugal. So we have no business with illiteracy, more so when we had free, compulsory education in Western Nigeria introduced in 1955. Rather than use illiteracy as an excuse, it should be a challenge we need to overcome. In any case, what about the literate Nigerians, why can’t they vote from the comfort of their homes?
Were we to go digital, which we should, we would not need to waste precious foreign exchange printing ballot papers abroad, shutting down the economy and our borders in the name of elections. We will not need to turn out all the 350,000 policemen and women in the country, militarise the country, risk ballot box-snatching, risk results manipulation or declare public holidays on the eve of elections as we did last week.
There are also many Nigerians who travel across the country to cast their votes thereby congesting the roads and airports and putting their lives at risk. Such persons can vote electronically from wherever they are in the country even if on holidays.
We do not need to punish Nigerians just because of elections or empty the treasury every quadrennial in the name of general elections. Just as we have no business with poverty, so do we not need to chain our country down to the analogue age.