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"We are faced with the choice of either compiling a new voters' register in less than 8 weeks or…salvaging the existing register in 16 weeks. Either of the two presents a very difficult choice indeed" – Attahiru Jega, INEC Chairman, Thursday, July 22.

And what kind of election will be held in 2011 without a proper voters' register? The difficult situation in which Nigeria has now found itself with regard to preparations for the 2011 elections was foreseeable, indeed it was foreseen and the present difficulty was well foretold, but the political leadership while paying lip service to electoral reform from Yar'Adua to Jonathan did not address the subject with the urgency it deserved. The National Assembly also fiddled. Immediately after the 2007 elections conducted by the Maurice Iwu-led INEC, one of the major revelations, from the observers and the evidence adduced at the various election petition tribunals, was the problematic nature of the voters' register which was constructed to disenfranchise many Nigerians and encourage rigging. The government of the day merely talked about electoral reform and did not bother to do anything about the voters' register in particular.

The Uwais Committee on Electoral Reform had also paid careful and detailed attention to issues of integrity in the electoral process, but the Yar'Adua administration toyed with the recommendations, and the National Assembly went ahead to ignore the central recommendations of that committee. The urgency of the electoral reform that was needed was further borne out by the various by-elections, re-run elections and the last gubernatorial election in Anambra state, a product of the staggering of elections arising from election petition cases; in Anambra, the voters' register was yet the issue with less than 10 % of the total number of registered voters reportedly captured by the process, and the majority were unable to vote because they could not find their names on the voters' register despite a so-called earlier verification exercise. It is a shame that eleven years after our return to democratic rule, Nigeria has not been able to prepare a credible voters' register.

The impression is now being given that Constitutional Amendment is the key issue of the moment; in the amended Constitution as proposed, elections are now supposed to take place 150 days before the end of the tenure of the incumbent President and Governors and not later than 120 days which means that elections for 2011 should be held by January 2011. Previously, the extant constitution being amended had indicated in Sections 132 (2) and 178(2), a window of between 60 and 30 days, which means that the elections would otherwise be held not later than March/April, given the old calendar. This is what the Nigerian Bar Association, Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and other groups in civil society are now clamouring for in order to allow INEC to prepare a proper voters' register. INEC itself is asking for a number of amendments in the Electoral Act to give it enough room to manoeuvre, and up to four months within which to compile a new voters' register.

Senator Ike Ekweremadu, Deputy Senate President, purportedly speaking on behalf of the Senate has said that the requested amendments would be effected as requested and that there can be no extension of dates, because the National Assembly does not want to be seen to be seeking a tenure elongation for President Goodluck Jonathan – whatever that means -although the nature of it is suggested in a Nigerian Tribune story: "Why elections may not hold January 2011" (July 24, p. 4). The confusion that has arisen is the fault of the National Assembly. Its members deliberately played games with the constitution amendment process; what should have been the first major task of the Assembly following its inauguration in 2007 was sabotaged by needless quarrels over the chairmanship of a joint constitution review committee, conveniently, they left the main assignment till the last moment. In 2002, this was exactly how the PDP-dominated National Assembly waited till the last minute before it amended the Electoral Act, the same was the case in 2006, and now the trick is being played again in 2010. With the last minute confusion that we are now all confronted with, it is not strange at all that some politicians are now proposing that familiar cop-out: "the doctrine of necessity" (The Guardian, July 4, p. 2). It is the failure of leadership that we are saddled with.

The original idea behind early polls was to give enough room for election petitions to be determined in order to prevent as much as possible the kind of situation, as seen, whereby, the wrong persons occupy a stolen seat for close to three or more years before the relevant election petition case is resolved. This was a major concern for civil society because of the disruptions to the system that it caused. But now the same civil society has been pushed, due to the failure of the lawmakers, to ask that the relevant sections of the amended 1999 Constitution should become operative in 2015. On the question of the early determination of election petitions, we may be on our way back to where we were, because of a "doctrine of necessity"! It is a shame that we have the wrong set of people in high places who do not believe in electoral reform or constitutional amendment. The present situation is entirely contrived, the same lawmakers who are now so active trying to effect this or that amendment are totally mischievous: why did we ever expect that election-riggers who got to office through fraudulent voters' register and means would propose laws that would deny them future stolen benefits?

The concern over a credible electoral register should not have brought us to a moment such as this. We are paying a heavy price, and it could be heavier, for the lack of statistics in the country, our poor data collection processes and the grand corruption that defines everything else Nigerian. The compilation of a voters' register needs not be a special event each time a general election approaches requiring as much as N55 - N72 billion! In civilized societies, the voters' register is compiled and updated and verified through records of births and deaths and a national identity programme, even employment payment records and other financial records. But here, in Nigeria, we have no such records, we don't have even have a credible national population census database. There is nobody, no department that can give an accurate figure of persons who have turned 18 since the last election and who are eligible to vote; many of such persons do not even have any means of identifying themselves.

Whenever there is a general election, a hasty attempt is made to compile a new register and yet on election day all kinds of strange names show up on the voters' register including Bill Clinton, Muhammed Ali, Mike Tyson and so on, and they are recorded as having voted. This pattern of corruption is widespread. For our democracy to work, there must be in place a national integrity framework which will compel persons to act as citizens not as vagabonds. We tend to believe that we can build a house without a foundation. The foundation to the perennial voters' register crisis is to have in every local council a well-organized registry of births and deaths. It is sheer irresponsibility that at this stage in the game we are still thinking of voters' register and dates. There should be clarity to the Nigerian madness. Are we going to spend so much money again only to get the same old results?

Attahiru Jega has told us what we already know that the voters' register prepared by Maurice Iwu's INEC was fraudulent and that the processes leading to the production of that register were criminal at best. The Daily Trust (July 23) quotes him as saying "fake voter registration equipment purchased for the 2006 registration exercise were responsible for the problems with the existing register…as soon as the contract was signed with credible partners, they were abandoned and fake equipment was purchased, some with expired licenses and that was what affected the voter registration exercise in 2006." We need to add that the problem is not with the "registration equipment" but the greed of the officials involved in this scam. This is definitely not a good testimonial for the former INEC Chairman, Professor Maurice Iwu. In some other societies, this will call for full-scale enquiry and sanctions. Who signed the contract? For how much? And how much was diverted? By whom? With whose authority? If Professor Jega has stumbled on any of these details, he should hand over the information to the appropriate agencies for action, and to the Nigerian people, so we may know those who do not want the country to make progress with democratic rule.

On the question of the voters' register, he adds in a public statement (see The Guardian, July 24, p. 52), the following words: "in the course of our retreat in Uyo, we closely looked through the existing voters' register, sampling over 1, 000 polling units from randomly selected 19 states. What we found were massive inadequacies, including under-age registrants, hundreds of blank or blurred photographs and multiple registrations by the same persons." While swearing in the new INEC Chairman on June 30, 2010, President Goodluck Jonathan had told him: "We have given you the free will to operate and we don't want Nigerians to hear that your legs and hands are tied. Nobody has tied anybody's legs." Jega seems to be saying less than a month later, that his legs, hands and neck are tied, and so he speaks of a "near-impossible" task which he is nevertheless determined to give his best shot.

The sub-text of all that explanation is that the only way he can make any difference is to start afresh. It is a shame that in Nigeria, we have to start afresh every time a new man takes office. Nigeria is run on an ad-hoc basis, without continuity or sustainability of programmes. The other indication in Jega's early cry for help is this: no one should hold him responsible if anything goes wrong with the 2011 general elections. He has served notice of the difficulties he faces. He needs for example N55- N75 billion within the next two weeks if he must meet the timetable for a new voters' register. Where will N75 billion come from in three weeks? Outside the budget? A supplementary budget? And won't the lawmakers spend all the time passing that? Prof. Jega has also had to reorganize the staffing of the Commission: some 1, 000 plus persons who had been recruited had to be laid off immediately. Where would he find the good men and women to conduct credible elections?

But even if Jega compiles a new voters' register and gets the N55 -72 billion that he wants (this is too high though- ha ha wetin?), that won't solve all the other problems with elections in Nigeria. Before Jega went public with the constraints that he faces, Donald Duke, former Governor of Cross River State, and now a Presidential aspirant, had blown the whistle on electoral fraud when he revealed how elections are rigged with the help of electoral officers, the Resident State Electoral Commissioner, and the state Commissioner of Police ("How Governors Rig Elections, by Donald Duke," The Guardian, July 18, pp. 72 -73). It is a terribly shocking exposure, fraught with such brazen self-indictment, class suicide and criminal indictment that should have pushed the security agencies to act.

Duke's report of how electoral officials collect vehicles, money, and other incentives from the sitting Governor and the ruling party and how the party in power in the state is invited to supply presiding electoral officials for an election in which it is fielding candidates clearly shows how since 1999,Nigerian leaders have treated every election as a joke. Donald Duke in his expose says he and his colleagues dismiss civil society activists as "woolly-eye dreamers." Duke and his friends must be laughing again: they may well be saying: what does it matter whether the election is held in January or April? And what does it matter if Jega prepares the best voters' register ever? Will that stop electoral officials from collecting cash and delivering the votes?

The biggest problem with this country is that while others are toiling to make it better, so many other Nigerians are busy trying to cheat the system and sabotage it; unfortunately, the public sphere is dominated by that kind. It is now up to President Goodluck Jonathan to take personal responsibility for ensuring that the 2011 elections are credible although most sadly, the lawmakers have thrown to him a suspicious sop with their ordering of elections which places the Presidential election first; without doubt, this is with the mind to blackmail the electorate and other stakeholders.

Disclaimer: "The views/contents expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of and do not necessarily reflect those of The Nigerian Voice. The Nigerian Voice will not be responsible or liable for any inaccurate or incorrect statements contained in this article."

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