Another look at the distribution of new Polling Units by INEC

Have you heard the scream? It must have got to you since the yell which emanates from the south-east reverberates even in the remotest part of Kano State. By the scream, I'm referring to manner in which parts of the country gained and were cheated in the distribution of additional 29,129 polling units carried out by the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC. Of a truth, the inequality is one that is screaming for attention.

Had it been that it called for attention, this column wouldn't have been distracted from focussing on other troubles our nation is inundated with. But then, it elected to scream for attention. Hence, you cannot deny to have heard it even if you are located around Nigeria's border with Niger Republic. Though understandably prominent in the south-east, this shout is further re-echoed from other flanks of southern Nigeria as well as those patches of the north inhabited by northerners whose sense of objectivity is still very much alive.

From my perspective, INEC's creation of the additional polling units is an ambush. It is akin to what Steve Nwosu of The Sun Newspapers would have included in his list of acts that amounts to 'tactical manoeuvring.' It is rightly so because a good number of us by virtue of the commission's earlier clean-up of the voter register had passed a vote of confidence on Jega's INEC to the extent that we all went to bed. Unfortunately, that was when the commission chose to take us unawares; coming like a thief in the night! Whether this was an orchestrated act or another instance of our public servants advancing out the vague public interest, we shall get to find out as we progress.

Let's begin with a backgrounder: The electoral body, as earlier pointed out, went about vetting the nation's voter register- a procedure which helped it detect millions of ghost-voters. The endeavour yielded so much success such that our voter register which in 2011 had some 70 million names as registered voters in Nigeria depreciated to a figure below 60 million. This was all that was needed by most Nigerians to surrender all to INEC and go to sleep. By the time they woke, they were greeted with the new reality that the number of polling booths in the country, which they knew to be 119,973, has now climbed to 150,000.

The furore and disquiet that ensued had nothing to do with INEC spiking the number of polling units. Rather, it had everything to do with the manner in which the booths were distributed among the major divides of the country. It also had a lot to do with the fact that the number of polling units handed the Federal Capital Territory, FCT, surpassed the number of polling booths that the entire south-east got! Note that I'm not referring to Enugu State alone, but the five states of the south-east put together! Pray, what justification can be given for this, even if the rest of us were fools? I bet you can now remember hearing the yell for attention.

How I hate to discuss any issue that would warrant me pitching one division of the country against the other. But, INEC left people like me with no choice. Perhaps, I should just call up the data showing how many of the new polling units were 'zoned' to each geopolitical zone in the country lest I be accused of being mischievous. You want facts? Here you have it:

Out of the additional 29,129 Polling Units, PUs, created by INEC, the north (including the Federal Capital Territory) got 20,715; while a meagre 8,414 of the sum went to the south. And this is how it was shared among the geopolitical zones: The north-west cornered 7, 906 of the new PUs; north-east 5, 291 and north-central 6, 318, conversely south-west 4, 160, south-south 3, 087 and south-east 1, 167 while the Federal Capital Territory (which is still a part of the north) getting 1, 200.

Little wonder the delineation is screaming for attention. The perceived regional bias inherent in it is accentuated by the following home truths: the allocation of 7,906 PUs to the north-west approximates to the 8,412 which the whole of southern Nigeria got. Similarly, each of the north-east and north-west zones got more polling units than the whole of south-west inclusive of Lagos, which is considered the state with the highest number of eligible voters nationwide.

And then the most inciting of the short-change is that the allocations of the new PUs that accrued to the FCT exceeded what went to the entire south-east! The apparent advantage the most recent creation of PUs gave the northern part of the country is without respect to the fact that an earlier clean-up of voter register led INEC into discovering more fictitious voters in the north than it did in the south.

Zamfara State used to have 2,045,131 registered voters. The clean-up exercise revealed that 1,130,245 of these were ghost-voters, meaning that as much as 44% of the names in the Zamfara voters register were bogus. With this as the case, why would INEC then go ahead to award more PUs to states like this in a fashion that amounts to taking one step forward and two backward? Let's try to check out the explanations INEC has given for this awkward arrangement.

According to Kayode Idowu, who is the chief press secretary to INEC chairman Prof. Attahiru Jega, “The whole purpose of the exercise is to enhance the access of voters to PUs and align the Nigerian system with global best practices. It is also intended to minimise the cost of elections." I hear! Let's try to remember that while announcing the creation of the additional polling units, the INEC director in charge of the commission's secretariat, Ishiaku A. Gali, informed that the creation of the additional PUs was in fulfilment of the electoral umpire's pledge to decongest polling units across the country in order to make it easier for voters to cast their votes.

And then I asked, is it that people of the north love casting their ballot so much that their PUs are always congested as against those in the south? It is probable that people of the south are so passionate about voting that even if there is just one PU per local government area, they will still persevere through the jam till they have voted for their preferred candidate, hence INEC saw no need in wasting logistics.

Then again, it may be that the people of the north are not wont to coming out to vote on election days, therefore as an incentive, INEC is merely trying to lure them out by bringing the booths closer to them. All these supposition would be incomplete without this last one. It is already said in some quarters that INEC is merely playing out a script from what the controversial Femi Aribasala termed #Bring Back Our Northern Domination.

Hear the columnist, "what the North lost by the removal of the fictitious ghost-voters was then re-awarded by the allocation of additional polling-units. For example, Zamfara that was discovered to be the guiltiest state in the inflation of its register with over one million ghost-voters was then awarded 1,000 more polling-units. Given the fact that each polling-unit has a maximum of 500 voters, this means Zamfara was awarded additional 500,000 potential voters as compensation for its loss of ghost-voters.

"It also means INEC compensated the North with 10, 807,500 potentially new voters; as opposed to 4,206,000 in the South. This is more than enough to swing any election to the Northern advantage," he posited.

Meanwhile, INEC is not yet done in the defence of its contentious award of polling units. According to the electoral body, “the defunct National Electoral Commission of Nigeria (NECON) created the present structure of PUs in 1996. The present commission undertook a verification of the PUs nationwide and their location in 2010 and ascertained 119, 973 units.

"A substantial number of these PUs are located in public buildings. But there are some PUs located in public open spaces; and yet some others in the premises of traditional rulers, places of worship, frontage of private houses and, indeed, inside private compounds,

“International best practice is that classrooms or halls of public schools/institutions should be used as polling units. This makes access control and crowd management at the PUs much easier,” INEC explained.

I took my time to present you this explanation from INEC so you can help me decide if it adequately justifies the favouring of one part of the country to the detriment of another in the distribution of polling units. This is because from where I stand, their postulations are sheer balderdash. It is so because I expected them to rather throw more light on that scientific means they used which supported the award of more polling units to parts of the north where insecurity has decimated the population there as against the relatively safer south. They should have also told us how on earth an FCT came to be in a position to get more PUs than the whole of south-east. Basically, the commission should have been more interested in straightening out all the obvious odds surrounding the PUs instead of the lame justification it is putting out.

Not until they give us a better explanation or correct this screaming anomaly, I would want to believe that INEC is merely trying to tilt the scale in favour of the north ahead of the 2015 election. President Jonathan had better intervened by working for a more equitable and balanced redistribution of the PUs for his own sake.

In a manner of speaking, Ndigbo are to be held responsible for this cavalier treatment their zone got from INEC. This is because their actions and inactions violated the native wisdom which suggests that the more likely your zone is to deliver close to 100 per cent votes for Jonathan in 2015, the less number of polling booths you will get. Ultimately, this remains their Ebele Azikiwe's battle to fight. I'm just saying!

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Articles by Ugochukwu Ugwuanyi