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Nigeria, 2011 and voters’ register

No one can accuse President Goodluck Jonathan of a lack of seriousness in his much-stated desire to reform Nigeria’s problematic voting system. After a long and much debated search, Mr Jonathan appeared to have hit the jackpot with the choice of former academic, unionist and administrator, Attahiru Jega as chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC).

The choice of Mr Jega and some other commissioners has been largely hailed, although some wary commentators have cautioned that the problem afflicting the electoral system have more to do with its rules than with the personnel.

To be fair to the critics, it is partly true that the problem with INEC is more systemic than one of individuals. The task facing Mr Jega and his team is further underlined by the dictates of time.

The new leadership of INEC has only a few months (the new electoral time table is not even out because it is dependent on the constitutional amendment exercise being carried out by our lawmakers) to get a grip on the commission and tackle the many problems facing it.

For starters, Nigerians do not know which political parties will participate in the polls yet, although this is hardly the problem of the electoral body. Politicians of all stripes are still holding meetings and consultations to construct appropriate political vehicles for realising their ambitions in the polls. INEC will, however have to process these vehicles and decide which of them will be able to present candidates for the elections.

The organisation also has to deal with internal staffing inadequacies. Perhaps no other set of public officials, except maybe those of the Police force, are as distrusted by Nigerians as officials of INEC .There is no doubt that the new electoral managers will have to re-staff the organisation to the appropriate size and subject its personnel to training and retraining.

But above all it is the widespread angst over the National Register of Voters that of uppermost concern to many Nigerians. Both politicians and ordinary voters agree that the voters’ register used by INEC for the last elections is so badly flawed as to be dysfunctional. Something surely has to be done about this. In fact, some political groups and civil society organisations have threatened to de legitimize the next elections if the register is not overhauled.

An analysis done by the Inter Society-Nigeria, with the example of the last election in Anambra State , shows that out of 1.84 million ‘registered voters’ in the state’s Register of Voters, only about 600,000 were real names or verifiable names.

A little above 301,000 of them voted in the February 6, 2010 governorship election in the state, which returned Peter Obi as victor .

The list is filled with thousands of contrived identities and symbols, along with names of the dead and foreigners. All these come with INEC- given code numbers and this bogus compilation which boosted the list to the stated 61 million registered Nigerians creates room for a lot of shenanigan.

As stated by Inter Society, if a genuine election is conducted in Nigeria as was done in Anambra State, the winner of the presidential election may not score more than 5 million to 10 million votes. Late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua was said to have scored 24 million votes in 2007.

INEC is also supposed to periodically update its register with new voters , deleting the names of those who have died. This is a tough task, because even the National Population Commission has struggled to update its roll of Nigerians.

But INEC has apparently not even attached much importance to this. Thus millions of Nigerians who missed the last registration exercise done years ago, because they are newly of age or they were out of the country, might not partake in the next election either, unless a new exercise is conducted.

But registration is not the end of it. Millions of people who registered during the last exercise are yet to get their voter cards. In Lagos alone, the figure of those without their cards is said to be about 2.1 million people, out of a total registered list of 4.2 million.

It is therefore in the interest of the new INEC leadership to get to work winning the hearts of Nigerians by starting a new voters register. It is to the benefits of all.