The 2019 elections are nearing – the season of hopes has begun. In the buildup to the last general elections, by this time, the hope for a change of government, particularly at the federal level had begun to sweep through the country. As the elections near, a fair assessment is that the country is actually performing well below the expectations of many Nigerians. And since we are again in the season of hopes, the subjects of public discourse have gradually narrowed in scope to issues surrounding the polls.
Arguably, one of the biggest issues surrounding the buildup to the upcoming elections is the likelihood and indeed the alleged incidence of underage registration in some parts of the country. This was more recently brought to the fore by the viral videos and photographs of underage voters casting their votes during the last local government election in Kano State. The situation has generated various public reactions, including anger, frustration and shifting of blames.
First, it was the Independent National Electoral Commission placing the blame squarely on the Kano State Independent Electoral Commission, saying it had no legal control or responsibility whatsoever over the conduct of elections at the local government level.
Following the apparent public discontent over the controversial videos and photographs, a statement by the Director, Voter Education and Publicity, INEC, Oluwole Osaze-Uzzi, had said the images contained in the videos did not relate to any election organised, conducted or superintended by the commission.
It said it could not be “be held directly or vicariously liable for an exercise outside our legal purview,” adding that “it should be pointed out here that local government elections are exclusively the constitutional responsibility of the respective state electoral commissions, which are in no way under the control or supervision of INEC.”
Then INEC’s denial was followed by the Kano State Government’s declaration that the controversial viral videos of underage voters belonged to INEC and not KASIEC.
Replying INEC, the state Commissioner of Information, Alhaji Muhammad Garba, said: “the viral video contained scenes where INEC card readers were deployed, and nothing of such was used in the last council poll in Kano.”
INEC’s Osaze-Uzzi then admitted that some underage voters were actually being registered in some parts of the country because the lives of registration officers were being threatened by the members of such communities.
“Even to the untrained eye, that child doesn’t look more than 15, but in such circumstances, you cannot argue too much with them. The law says the registration officer is entitled to act on some kind of identification or birth certificate or proof of age.
“But very often, they are resisted, especially when there are lots of people there. They are challenged in a charged atmosphere and they are there without any protection. Many of them are there in strange communities which they don’t know anything about. So, there is undue pressure on them to register at this point,” he had said.
Similarly, a story recently shared by a former INEC National Commissioner, Prof. Lai Olurode, about how he almost lost his life for refusing to allow underage voters to vote some years ago, lends credence to the threat of underage registration and voting in some parts of the country.
“I had to run for my life at one of the election centres in a part of the country because these people said children must vote or there would be no election at all. It is that bad,” Olurode had told The PUNCH.
Although, INEC, through its Chairman, Prof. Yakubu Mahmood, had last week vowed to move against the practice, saying a panel had been set up to investigate the alleged issue of underage registration and voting in Kano State, some political analysts have however heaped much of the blame on the commission.
INEC also held a meeting with SIECs during the week to discuss issues affecting electoral process in the country, including underage registration and voting. However, political analysts have insisted that INEC has no excuse, adding that more proactive measures should be taken to put a stop to the practice.
For instance, a Second Republic lawmaker, Dr. Junaid Mohammed, said INEC “should either accept the whole responsibility or they (officials) should shut up because they are now claiming that something, which is their responsibility by law, was done wrongly.”
Similarly, a lawyer and human rights activist, Mr. Jiti Ogunye, who praised the media for bringing the matter to the fore, described INEC’s defence as condemnable.
He said, “Those who started this current round of debate are not the government or the INEC, but INEC officials are now coming out to say when they were doing the registration, they were intimidated and threatened. That is condemnable.
“They didn’t make this disclosure to the Nigerian people but because people are asking questions, they are now being compelled by this exposure to say their officials were threatened with death and that was why they registered underage persons.
“INEC and its officials, both current and erstwhile officials, including eminent persons like Prof. Olurode, have come out to confess that they participated in the criminal activity. They were the ones handling the registration exercise; they were the ones who had the duty to file a report and stop it.
“Registration of voters is not an exercise that is done in one day. So if you are an INEC commissioner superintending over the process or registration, and on Day One, underage voters were presented and they threatened you, so what of Day Two and Day Three? So it is balderdash and idiocy for them to be telling us that they were compelled to register underage persons.
“That is inexcusable and unpardonable because it is the evidence that has forced them to start confessing. So they deserve punishment because the electoral act provides for penalties. It is ridiculous; what they are saying is that if people present themselves at the registration centres and say they have donkeys and goats, they (INEC officials) will register them and the same excuse that they were threatened will be given.”
Another legal practitioner and public affairs analyst, Mr. Liborous Oshoma, who toed the same line, said, “Politicians will always be politicians; they will employ everything to ensure that they have their way. However, the essence of being an umpire is to prevent them from having their way. Like Chinua Achebe said in ‘Chike and the River ’, when the politicians learn to fly without perching, you as the umpire, should also learn to shoot without missing.
“Yes, you will be threatened, but immediately you leave that registration centre and get to your office, is the threat still there? At the centre, you can note the names you have issues with on your register and make a report when you get to your office. INEC’s statement is like saying that because a child threatened you, you gave him alcohol. So, INEC cannot excuse itself from this.”
Tracing the origin of the problem, both Ogunye and Oshoma described it as stemming from a conspiracy by some people to gain an undue advantage over others in the country.
“It is borne out of this age-long façade or argument that the North has more population than the South and vice versa. They want to maintain the age-long façade of we have 40 million people here, 30 million people there and all that.
“So, if it is possible for them to include goats and chickens as voters, some will do it. In those days, you would see names like Bill Gates, Michael Jackson on our voter register, but with the introduction of biometric registration, they now need to use actual people and so what they do is to bring underage persons to register,” Oshoma said.
According to Ogunye, from empirical available evidence, the incidence of underage voting in Nigeria is most rampant in the northern part of the country.
“And let us be clear, this is not about any ethno -geographical or regional profiling. From the empirical evidence that is available, this incidence is most rampant in the northern part of the country. So that incidence has again underscored everything that is wrong with our electoral system, politics, governance, and indeed, our democratic and political system.
“Those who encourage it in any environment have a premeditation to secure an undue advantage over other parts of the country and over other people even within that same locality.
“Those who facilitate this and support this are politically affiliated, either in the past or now, usually with the dominant party or the party in power, such that they will then have an undue advantage and be able to outvote illicitly their opponents and the democratic process is thereby contaminated,” he noted. But the implications have been described as grave for the future of the country should the situation continue unchecked.
Experts said it would mean that Nigeria’s electoral, democratic and political systems would continue to lack credibility.
A Lagos-based lawyer and political analyst, Mr. Tunde Esan, described the situation as a pointer to the failure of Nigeria as a state.
He said, “It means that we no longer practise democracy and we are preparing the grounds for rigging. So it simply means that whosoever emerges from such a flawed process cannot be legitimate.
“If the electoral umpire is saying that I cannot vouch for the list that I have as it is already compromised, so how can you rely on the list for the purpose of conducting an election?
“When an election is compromised, whatever comes out of that election is compromised. The government is illegitimate and an illegitimate government will inevitably lead to the destruction of the country.”
Esan said the collective efforts of the media, the President, lawmakers, governors, lawyers and other stakeholders would be needed to put a stop to such a practice.
But the review of the electoral act that would grant INEC the power to be the only electoral body in the country was canvassed by Mohammed, who is also the Convener of the Coalition of Northern Politicians, Academics, Professionals and Businessmen, as the solution to the problem.
By this, there would be no more state independent electoral commissions to organise local government elections in states.
“We should have one national electoral umpire. Credible elections are so fundamentally important to Nigeria and we can afford to let go of some of our constitutional beliefs and obsessions and make sure we have credible elections as the starting point.
“I am persuaded and I have no doubt in my mind that we should have one electoral umpire and it is to conduct all elections from the national election down to local government and ward elections,” he said.
Ogunye and Oshoma , however, called for the implementation of electoral laws and punishment of offenders.
“We don’t need to go to Rome or Saudi Arabia to pray about this, enforce the law. Our laws are so voluminous, yet we don’t abide by the law. The law has made provision for all these things.
“The best way to stop it is to enforce the law and it must start from INEC. All those officials who participated in those acts must be fished out and brought to justice. They must be prosecuted; when they are prosecuted and sent to jail, next time when toddlers and minors present themselves to say they want to be registered, they will know what to do.
“So, I won’t recommend voter education in schools, churches and mosques and so on. Sermons will not solve the problem. Those who do it know that it is wrong but they know that the law is supine, just lying flat, helpless and castrated. But when there are consequences for actions, you will see that there will be a change,” Ogunye said.
Also according to Oshoma, it is not the lack of laws that is Nigeria’s problem; it is the willpower to implement them.
Oshoma added that after every election year, Nigeria should identify lapses that characterised such polls and correct them before another election year.
“There is the need for INEC to also use the automated fingerprints and identification system to ensure that there is a cleanup of the register as much as it can to eliminate this issue of underage voting,” he said.