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Voter Registration: A Contextual Review

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'History never looks like history when you are living through it.' - John W. Gardner (1912-2002), U. S. Republican statesman/Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare under President Lyndon Johnson. Success, like beauty, is haplessly a subjective perception. And perception is all there is to reality. Remember the proverbial scenario of some people seeing a glass cup half-filled with water while others see it as half-empty? It is inevitably moot with many Nigerians whether the just-concluded Voter Registration exercise has fared well or ill, as conducted by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). But while opinions may differ, applicable facts remain constant. The objective of this piece is to highlight those immutable facts.  

  Some persons have picked holes in the registration process, but their complaints were rooted in cynicism and a mindset to write-off the exercise even before it got off the ground. These ones, I'm afraid, can't be helped. Some others criticised the exercise, whereas the actual ground of their grouse was the design of the process by INEC against manipulation and fraud. These also can't be helped. But there are those with some genuinely high expectations that might not have been fully met, and who may be open to a fair-minded review of the exercise. These really are the ones who may find any value in setting the exercise in contextual parameters as follows here.     

  The voter registration got off to a troubled start on January 15th, 2011, owing to some initial challenges for which INEC has taken full responsibility. But the challenges arose from locational and human factors, not from lack of diligent and detailed planning by the Commission as some critics have argued. Unless you come to grips with the humongous scale of the operation executed by INEC, you would fail to appreciate the inevitability of these challenges. So, let's try some mental imaging: In sheer quantum, if the boxes of 132,000 Direct Data Capture (DDC) machines deployed by INEC for the exercise were laid out edge-to-edge on the ground, they would stretch unbroken for 83 kilometres. Equally huge is the more than 300,000-size ad hoc workforce deployed by INEC over the 923,768 sq. km. area of this country - more that 40 per cent of this area in extremely remote and hardly accessible terrains. In simple comparison, this workforce size is nearly one-third bigger than the combined population of soldiers in all 16 West African states, which records summed up at 215,840. With this enormous scale of manpower and equipment deployment, and given the short time available for the exercise, the just-concluded voter registration is reputedly a world record. In other words, with all its imperfections, the scale of the operation is unprecedented. It should be expected therefore that no extent of diligent planning and preparation could have conclusively precluded the initial challenges as were encountered in the exercise.  

  This is the context in which delayed deployment of some equipment, cases of dysfunctional equipment and manpower dislocations in the course of the exercise should be seen. This, of course, is by no means justifying those challenges; and that is why INEC appealed for the public's understanding. But as one of Murphy's Laws states, 'If anything can go wrong, it will.' Things did go wrong, unfortunately, at the commencement of the registration exercise despite plans and projections by INEC to the contrary.    

  The Commission, for instance, had intended to deploy one DDC machine in each of the 119,973 polling units, which serve as registration centres nationwide, before the commencement of the exercise. But at the start of registration, about 110,000 units of the equipment were in-country because one of the suppliers had failed to deliver the 22,000 units it was contracted. Even then, a good number of the available equipment arrived on the eve of registration; hence about 107,000 units had been deployed in the states when the exercise commenced. In comparative terms, that number was about four times more than all the machines deployed for the 2006 voter registration exercise. But the fact remained that more than 20,000 registration centres were initially without equipment - with consequential failure to commence the exercise amidst acute agitation of eligible voters waiting to be registered at those centres.   Although INEC deployed some 115,500 DDC units across the country within the first five days of registration, the initial delay combined with another initial challenge of extremely slow response of the fingerprint scanners to fuel the crowd profile in many centres. But by the commencement of the second week, the full complement of machines for all centres nationwide had been deployed with 10 per cent redundancy margin to spare.  

  Easily the biggest blight of the exercise was the initial slow response of fingerprint scanners, which unduly prolonged the registration process. But even this factor wasn't for any failing on the part of INEC. It was due rather to the factory setting of the scanners at high forensic quality level - which might be quite helpful in criminal investigations but really needless for election purposes. That challenge was swiftly addressed by INEC with a software patch sent out from the national headquarters to lower the sensitivity of the scanner setting. Naturally, however, it took a few days more before the adjustment took effect at the centres and translated to a faster pace of registration. Could INEC have done anything to prevent that experience? Perhaps yes, if the end-users of Toyota cars could have done much to prevent the factory glitches that accounted for a massive recall of that favourite brand a couple of years ago.  

  Another challenge to the exercise was inadequate power as was reported concerning some DDC units across the country. This had motivated communities and individuals to intervene with generator sets and power cables. But that, again, isn't for inattention to detail on the part of INEC. Battery power was factored in with the DDC units and the registration process was designed to run without external power supply. Thus, each machine had a compliment of two batteries, with each battery having a capacity for 10 to 12 hours if fully charged. Besides, there were 8,809 Registration Area Centres (RACs) nationwide, each of which was kitted with a generator set. The design was for every DDC unit to be taken back to respective RAC by registration officials at the end of each work-day for safe-keep and overnight recharging of the batteries. Given that the exercise lasted for between eight and nine hours daily, there was ample provision of battery power for a full work-day and another to spare if the batteries were fully charged. But human factor came into play and those batteries, apparently, were not fully charged when many of the machines were deployed. Again, this wasn't for INEC not trying.  

  Some people have questioned the quality of the hardware that was deployed by the Commission for the registration exercise. Their query hinged largely on instances of equipment breakdown that were recorded across the country, and with which cynics benchmarked the entire exercise. These breakdowns were unfortunate, but not unthinkable as cynics made them seem. In my view, benchmarking a 132,000-strong DDC arsenal with the breakdown of little more than a thousand - especially when many were deployed in extremely inclement terrains - is to stretch the acid test too thin. In any event, the Commission made allowance for such breakdowns when, in its planning, it stipulated a contractual warranty clause for replacement of dysfunctional equipment by the suppliers. And that was besides the provision made with the 10 per cent spare in the equipment volume.  

  Issues have also been made with the capacity of INEC to check multiple registrations with its in-house developed software. Cynics contended that the Commission lacked the capacity to prevent multiple registrations on different DDC units, though thankfully, they acknowledged that it was impossible for anyone to register more than once on the same DDC unit. If you asked me, I see some illogic in this argument, because it is easily conceivable that the same capacity which makes double registration impossible on the front-end (i.e. the DDC unit) can well be applied at the back-end (i.e. on the server at the data collation stage). And that, actually, is just what INEC is doing with the application of the AFIS software on the data gathered as they are being collated. Of course, the DDC units were not networked, as has been rightly observed. That was for the obvious lack of infrastructure necessary to provide Internet service in deployment areas - more than half of which are areas where there isn't even GSM service, much less Internet. But the blunt truth is: INEC has the capacity to detect and delete multiple registrations and it is maximally deploying that capacity. And the really bad news for culprits is that they will be apprehended and prosecuted. Why, anyway, did anyone ever bothered to undertake multiple registrations when there is no way under the present dispensation that anyone could ballot-stuff or vote multiply during the elections? It is simply futile, and the Voter Register that will come from this exercise is guaranteed to be cleansed of such malfeasances.    

  The turnout of registrants for the just-concluded exercise was massive - pleasantly assuaging the fear of voter apathy harboured before the exercise commenced. But some people would fault the exercise for the reason that they couldn't get registered within the 24 days allotted. This, without doubt, is unfortunate; but, again, it isn't for INEC not trying. And the challenge is to take the exercise in context. About 70 million registrants were projected by the Commission for this exercise, and little short of that number had been registered at the end of the selective mop-up which ended on Monday. INEC's strong desire to accommodate all registrants who turned out had informed the seven-day extension to the 15-day regulation time and the subsequent two-day selective extension in heavily populated areas. Part of the problem, I think, is that lengthy queues at the expiration of set deadlines have become almost a cultural factor in our society. Unfortunately, the time available to INEC ahead of the April elections is inelastic. Much as the Commission desired to leave no potential registrant outstanding out there, and much as it tried to accommodate all, it was inevitable that the curtains be drawn at some point. The good thing is that there is opportunity for continuous voter registration on a sustainable basis beyond the April elections. By implication, there should be no cause for a massive exercise as was just concluded for a long time to come, if ever again. Even if nothing else, that should be a substantial success factor in the exercise.       Kayode Idowu is the Chief Press Secretary to Hon. Chairman, Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC)