Not too long ago, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) unveiled plans to establish more polling units across the country ahead of the 2023 general election. The current configuration of 119,973 polling units was established 25 years ago by the defunct National Electoral Commission of Nigeria (NECON).
Since then, every attempt to review or reconfigure the polling unit structure has been unsuccessful due to misconceptions and politicisation of the exercise. Consequently, the 1996 polling unit configuration has been used for six general elections – 1999, 2003, 2007, 2011, 2015 and 2019. Incidentally, when the existing polling unit structure was established, it was projected to serve about 50 million registered voters. However, the number of registered voters for the 1999 General Election was 57.93 million.
This rose to 60.82 million in 2003, 61.56 million in 2007 and 73.52 million in 2011. Although the number declined to 68.83 million for the 2015 general election following the cleaning up of the register through the use of Automated Fingerprints Identification System (AFIS) to eliminate double registrants, it rose to 84.04 million in 2019 after more voters got on the register as a result of the Continuous Voter Registration (CVR) exercise. The reality is that while the number of registered voters increased from 57.93 million in 1999 to 84.04 million in 2019, an increase of 45 per cent, the number of polling units remained the same.
This lack of correlation between the number of registered voters and the number of polling units since 1999 has resulted in congested polling units on Election Day and lack of polling units in many developing suburban and newly established settlements. The effects have been low voter turnout and voter apathy, insecurity at the existing polling units, disruption of elections and, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, unsafe voting environments. Available statistics show that the average number of voters per polling unit in many parts of Nigeria, stand at 700.
However, in some states, the average number of voters per polling unit is well over 4,000. Indeed, INEC reports that in one polling unit, Mararaba Garage II in Karu Local Government Area of Nasarawa State, there are 15,061 voters, which is more than 2,000% above the national average. INEC has said it had received 5,747 requests for new polling units from 24 states and the Federal Capital Territory.
If these statistics from the Election Management Body (EMB) are anything to go by, then there is a compelling need to increase the number of polling units and expand the opportunities for Nigerians to exercise their franchise with relative ease during future elections. Quite frankly, 25 years is a long time and the demographics of population and human settlements have changed over this long period in many parts of the country. Clearly there would have been population growth and the springing up of new settlements in some parts of the country just as there must have been destruction of human settlements and displacement or outright decline in population, especially in regions afflicted by the insurgency, terrorism and banditry in recent years. Ideally, these are issues that should have been resolved through a national population and housing census, superintended by the National Population Commission (NPC).
We believe that if Nigeria had kept faith with the globally accepted norm of having a national head count once every 10 years, some of these statistics would have been brought to a higher relief and better appreciated by all Nigerians. We agree with INEC on the need to reorganise the existing polling units because some of them are located in very physically inaccessible locations, particularly for persons living with disability. We are also concerned that at the moment, some polling units are even located in the homes of the so called “important people” and in the premises of some religious groups, who often have political leanings capable of discouraging some voters from voting. It is even more disturbing that some polling units are located in forests, shrines as well as highly charged and contested areas, including places experiencing communal conflicts. We commend INEC for its plans to consult widely on the issue before setting the process in motion.
This, we hope, will bring all relevant stakeholders, including the political parties and sociocultural organisations to the discourse and get their understanding and cooperation. Everything possible should be done to build national consensus on the issue and avoid the pitfalls of the past. We think the Commission is on the right path with its work plan, but we warn that the exercise must be devoid of any hidden political, partisan, ethnic, religious or regional agenda. In plain language, the Commission must ensure that the establishment of more polling units will be beneficial to voters all over the country.
The Commission must avoid the temptation of lending itself to be used by politicians to create new polling units as a basis to push for the creation of more electoral wards and constituencies or indeed for other ulterior motives. If the exercise is done equitably and transparently, it would go a long way in dispelling the conspiracy theories that some parts of the country would be favoured or disfavoured for whatever reasons.