Politics

INEC’s fresh push for polling units expansion

After three previous attempts, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) begins another process of polling units delineation with consultations with election stakeholders. ONYEKACHI EZE examines the effectiveness of this approach

 

 

After three unsuccessful attempts, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) now adopted a new approach to the disturbing issue of polling units expansion.

 

This time, the commission is holding consultations with election stakeholders, unlike the previous attempts that failed because the commission handled them administratively.

 

Last week, the commission met with leaders of the 18 registered political parties, civil society organisations (CSOs), Inter-Agency Consultative Committee on Election Security (ICCES) and the media, as part of its planned series of engagements with critical stakeholders on polling units expansion.

 

INEC Chairman, Prof. Mahmood Yakubu who addressed the meetings said the commission has learnt from previous experiences and has decided to engage with Nigerians by consulting widely.

 

He reminded them of the commission’s previous attempts in 2007, 2014 and 2019, which he believed failed because they “were handled administratively. They also came too close to general elections. Consequently, the commission’s intention was not properly communicated and therefore misunderstood and politicised.”

 

Nigeria’s last polling units delineation exercise was in 1996, that is some 25 years ago. That time, Nigeria was under military rule.

 

The then National Electoral Commission of Nigeria (NECON), which handled the exercise, did not see the need to consult the stakeholders before embarking on the exercise, since the commission was only answerable to the military government that created it. It was a smooth exercise, because even if there were any objection from any quarter, no one would have listened.

 

That was the method INEC tried to adopt in the previous attempts that failed, not minding that unlike 1996, Nigeria is now in a democratic regime, which requires that sensitive issues like creation of polling units, demand inputs and views of stakeholders. In 2019, INEC denied that it planned to create additional polling units.

 

The main opposition party, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) had raised an alarm that the commission was planning to create “3, 000 illegal voting centres.”

 

The party said in a statement by its National Publicity Secretary, Kola Ologbondiyan that INEC was creating voting centres outside the country to rig the 2019 presidential election in favour of President Muhammadu Buhari and the All Progressives Congress (APC).

 

Buhari, INEC and all Nigerians know that there are no provisions for Diaspora voting under our system. By the extant laws guiding elections in Nigeria, it is very clear who is eligible to vote, as well as the centres statutorily designated for elections.

 

There is no provision for any special arrangement whatsoever.” But INEC, in a reaction by Chairman, Information and Voter Education Committee, Festus Okoye, denied the allegation, describing it as false.

 

Okoye said internally displaced persons (IDPs) living outside the states they registered would only vote in the presidential election, while those living in the state they registered would vote in all elections in 2019.

 

According to him, “The commission wishes to state unequivocally that there will be no Diaspora or out-of-country voting for any Nigerian, in accordance with extant provisions of the 1999 constitution. Only duly registered IDPs within Nigeria will be allowed to vote.”

 

The same controversy trailed the attempt by immediate past Chairman of the commission, Prof. Attahiru Jega to create 30, 027 additional polling units in 2014, to bring the number of polling units in the country to 15, 000. Jega was accused of bias by favouring the north in the distribution of the polling units, an attempt to give the region political advantage over the south. INEC had allocated a whopping 21, 000 or 70 per cent out of the 30, 027 polling units to the north, leaving the entire southern region with paltry 9, 000 units.

 

This attracted fierce criticisms from stakeholders from the region, even though Lagos State, which is a state in the south had the highest allocation of 3, 159 polling units. Imo State got 42 polling units, which was the least among the 36 states of the country and Abuja.

 

The South-South Peoples Assembly (SSPA) said Prof. Jega’s should not be relieved his  appointment and should not allowed to conduct the 2015 general elections. The INEC Chairman is from Kebbi State, in the North West while then sitting president, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan who was seeking re-election, is from Bayelsa State, South-South Nigeria. Prof. Jega’s explanation was that the number of the over 70 million registered voters was higher in the north than in the south. He denied sectional or parochial agenda in the commission’s decision.

 

He explained that the distribution was done by dividing the number of registered voters in each state by 500 (which is the maximum of registered voters per polling unit), adding, “The fairest and most logical criterion to use in distributing the 150,000 PUs nationwide is the number of registered voters.

 

“At present the post-AFIS (Automated Fingerprints Identification System) figure of registered voters is the most appropriate figure of registered voters that is available nationwide, to use; hence the decision to use post-AFIS figures, as the basis for distributing the 150,000 polling units.”

 

The INEC Chairman said the ‘need factor’ more than political sentiments, informed the patterns of distribution of the proposed polling units. But the people were not convinced by this explanations, and so INEC was pressurised to drop the proposal and thereafter, reverted to the 120, 000 polling units created by NECON in 1996, for the conduct of the 2015 elections.

 

NECON created a total of 119,973 (now approximated to 120, 000) polling units to serve a projected population of 50 million voters. This was about 417 voters per polling unit. Now the voting population has increased to over 84 million (and still counting), while the number of polling units still remained static since 1996.

 

This time, it is about 700 voters per polling unit. INEC said in some states and Abuja, the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), there are up to 1, 500 and 2, 000 voters per polling unit, whereas the recommended number is 500.

 

The commission blamed poor voter turnout in elections to the difficulty in accessing the polling units by eligible voters.

 

Some of these polling units are located in places that do not encourage voters to participate in elections, particularly persons living with disability, while others are located in places experiencing conflict or under the control of partisan actors. Aside inaccessibility of polling units, many people were disenfranchised because of the restriction of movement on election day.

 

These polling units are located in areas where people have to travel far distances to cast their votes, which they could not because of the restriction. Prof. Yakubu said, “the egregious violation of election regulations and guidelines, violence and insecurity” contributed to low voter turnout at elections.

 

And in the face of global COVID-19 pandemic, crowding at polling units could constitute health and safety issues.

 

The INEC Chairman said the last two electoral cycles and off-season elections recorded low voter turnout across the country, of around 30 to 35 per cent.

 

While there may be an increase in some states, “some bye-elections recorded as low as 8.3 per cent voter turnout in an urban constituency of over 1.2 million registered voters, whereas countries in West Africa have average voter turnout of between 66 and 70 per cent.”

 

Having failed to create additional polling units, INEC, in a bid to decongest the existing ones, decided to create voting points, where polling units with large numbers of voters are sub-divided into multiples of manageable numbers of about 300, with a maximum of 450 registered voters.

 

And following security challenges in some parts of the country where people were displaced from their homes, the commission created voting point settlements  to give the people opportunity to vote during elections.

 

During the ongoing consultations, the commission told the stakeholders that creating additional polling units will solve the problem of overcrowding at polling units, as well as prevent disruptions, delays and violence on election day.

 

According to Prof. Yakubu, “the exercise was aimed at a spatial distribution of voters, the relocation of polling units from unsuitable places to more suitable places, and the location of PUs within the reasonable commuting distances of voters.” As the consultations progressed, the commission has obtained the endorsement of its regular stakeholders – political party leaders, civil society organisations, the security agencies and the media.

 

Their reactions showed that they are favourably disposed to polling units expansion, especially the conversion of the existing voting points and voting point settlements into full-fledged polling units.

 

They however demanded that due attention should “be paid to location of the proposed polling units in suitable, accessible, secure and conducive environments for voting.”

 

INEC will this week, expand the scope of the consultations to include socio-cultural associations, traditional and religious organisations, labour unions, professional and constitutional bodies.

 

This is to make the discussion all-inclusive and ensure a smooth process.

 

Although they may not be averse to polling units expansion but they would like to be told the number of polling units the commission intends to create and the criteria to be adopted in the distribution. It may be recalled that the rejection of the 30, 027 polling units in 2014 was not because people were not consulted but due to what the stakeholders perceived as “disproportional distribution” of the polling units between the north and the south.

 

This is because the commission failed to adequately sensitise the people on the criteria used in the distribution. The argument advanced by INEC for the expansion is convincing because more people will come out to vote in elections if voting locations are accessible to them, and if they are sure that they will spend minimal time to exercise their franchise.

 

The commission could expand the scope of the discussion further by disclosing the number of polling units to be created and the criteria it wishes to adopt in the distribution. This way, any opposition that could arise in future would be handled on time and the delineation exercise have a smooth sail. INEC could be commended for starting the consultations two years before the 2023 general elections.

 

This will give the commission the ample opportunity to address any issue that may arise before the polls. At the same time, it is important that the commission completes the delineation exercise before the Osun 2022 governorship so as to use the poll to test run the implementation. Everything necessary need to be done to ensure credible, free, fair and transparent elections in Nigeria of which polling units expansion is one of them.

 

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