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VOTER REGISTRATION: RESERVATIONS FROM CROSS RIVER

By NBF News
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There are moments in Nigerian national life when events lurch out of context, when good programmes are frustrated by key actors and seemingly simple assignment turned into a maelstrom of moral reappraisal. That is what is happening in the aftermath of the voter registration exercise in the country.

Criticisms trailing the exercise as usual first arose as footnote to history: media reports speak of how the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) floundered in its assignment evident in non-availability or inadequate registration materials, faulty DDC machines, lack of ink, printing papers and inability of most youth corps members and ad hoc staff to operate the machines.

For years, Nigeria's electoral commissions have remained the butt of criticisms caused by their inability to do a neat job. They have been berated for poor voter register, inability to cover the 120,000 designated registration centres in the 774 Local Government Areas of the country, and involvement in election malpractices. Yet, the first step toward a free and fair election begins with a credible voter register.

But of all the states in the country, none was at the receiving end of INEC's inefficiency like Cross River in the just concluded voter registration exercise. Thus, across the state today, the political landscape is wearing a gloomy look. In the Southern Senatorial District, the people are disillusioned and complaining aloud; in the central, calls for a repeat of the exercise have reached a crescendo, and in the north, the voting public is literally up in arms.

This display of outrage is daily on the increase and becoming too familiar. From the marshy lowland of Bakassi in the south to the rocky mountains of Obanliku in the north, the people of the state are unanimous in their condemnation of the shoddy job done by INEC. There is none of the 3,383 polling units of the state without complaints of low registration caused by the electoral body.

The political consciousness of the people of Cross River State has grown beyond expectation. With a government in place that is in total support of free and fair elections, the people were well sensitized and mobilized ahead of the commencement of the registration exercise. Accordingly, they turned out in hundreds of thousands each day to exercise their civic responsibility. But the snag turned out to be the electoral body.

Whereas in other states distribution of registration materials was concluded before registration began, in Cross River the reverse was the case. Within Calabar, the state capital, registration materials and officers were nowhere near the designated registration units on the first and second day. At INEC office on Murtala Mohammed Highway, all inquisitive newsmen heard was that the materials were being sorted out for distribution.

Yet Cross River State has such a wide expanse of land that it takes seven hours to travel from Bakassi to Obanliku. Given the geographical factors of rocky terrain, creeks and rainforest – all which impede accessibility; it became difficult for the materials distributed by INEC in phases to get to rural areas with this terrible terrain on time. Sadly enough, most polling units in the hinterlands did not see these materials.

Like in other states, a bulk of the population of Cross River State resides in the rural areas. And with this poor showing of INEC in their domain, most of the eligible voters there are already disenfranchised. If INEC had considered the problem of inaccessibility to rural communities by distributing these materials ahead of January 15, 2011, complaints of denied registration would have been less. One really wonders if the REC truly knew the terrain and size of the state.

Border communities suffered most the indifference of the umpire. In Danre, a community in Boki Local Government Area that shares international boundary with Cameroun, there was no registration there. Ditto for communities in Obanliku that are near Cameroun. These and some other border communities can only be reached on foot. A careful planning by INEC in the state would have solved this problem, but it failed to be proactive.

In Bakassi Local Government Area, INEC in Cross River State allowed itself to be misled by some traditional rulers and politicians. Consequently, registration only commenced there during the one week extension period announced by the Federal Government. Some posers for the supervisor-in-chief: Was the road to New Bakassi blocked? How come that it took instructions from a certain monarch and top politician?

Why did it agree to go to old Bakassi now occupied by Cameroun to carry out registration?

The New Bakassi Local Government area located on the bank of Ikang River has 10 Council wards carved out by an enabling State Edict. But that INEC will wait till January 23 to set sail to Bakassi Peninsula under the company of this monarch remains a mystery. There is a straight vehicular road from Calabar to New Bakassi near Akpabuyo Local Government Area. Or did the monarch and his cohorts have a hidden agenda by leaving Calabar for Bakassi with the registration materials on sea?

Their action had no provision in the economy of providence as the speed boat they were travelling in capsized some nautical miles after take-off from the Marina Beach. Luckily enough, the royal father and his partners survived the Marine accident and returned to Calabar to tell tales of their ordeal. Despite this, INEC still looked unto the traditional institution on how to do its job in Bakassi.

Based on these unpleasant developments, some elites in Bakassi petitioned the paramount ruler of the area, Etinyin Etim Okon Edet to the State House of Assembly accusing him of meddlesomeness in the electoral process. The petition outrightly alleged that he is into partisan politics contrary to the Traditional Rulers Edict, which bars them from party politics. Quickly the House of Assembly raised a committee to probe the matter.

The insensitivity of INEC toward the electoral participation of the people of Bakassi ensured that registration only commenced there during the one week of grace given. This limited time prevented thousands of eligible voters from capturing their images to qualify for voting in April. Elites and those so obviously disenfranchised have been protesting to INEC pleading for a fresh exercise to no avail.

In some parts of the country that encountered this peculiar problem, two extra days were granted them to complete the exercise and thus capture more voters. But in Bakassi, there was no such magnanimity. This is because INEC in the state under the leadership of Barrister Mike Igini made no such request even when prompted. The Resident Electoral Commissioner (REC) failed to carry the people along.

Even when the exercise finally commenced in Bakassi, the last three days of the one week extension period was when the people turned out en masse to register. This was when additional materials arrived coupled with the on-the-spot assessment visit of Governor Liyel Imoke.

To the Speaker of the Cross River State House of Assembly, Hon. Francis Adah; a member of the Assembly representing Boki II State Constituency Hon. Jake Enyia and his Yala II State Constituency counterpart, Hon. Mom Olom, INEC is to blame for the below average performance in the state. In most registration centres in their constituencies of Obanliku, Boki II and Yala II respectively, the exercise commenced one week after, owing to poor preparation by INEC.

The consequences, according to them, are registration of less than half of the eligible adults in these constituencies. The few that got registered did so through their assistance. They helped to retrain the NYSC members and ad hoc staff on how to operate the DDC machines, bought ink and printing papers, besides providing logistics. Across the state, reports of poor funding were rife, raising questions on what happened to funds disbursed for the exercise.

It is on record that top government functionaries who returned to their communities to participate in the exercise developed cold feet when confronted with the stack realities in the field. Frantic calls to INEC to make amends made no difference. Left with no choice, they hired technicians to repair faulty DDC machines, purchase printing ink and lamination papers in addition to feeding allowance to the registration officers. The State Government did not fail to fund the exercise when it became obvious that INEC was faltering.

Mr. Igini is a well-known activist in Nigeria but he is one man who obviously does not know where activism ends and statesmanship begins. It is glaring that he is still steeped in the June 12 struggle that he has constituted himself into opposition to the establishment. He does not know the difference between a cause and patriotic fervor. He has continued to pick holes with anything that has to do with the interest of the state.

Why?
Disturbed by his apparent incompetence, the State House of Assembly passed a resolution calling for his redeployment. The lawmakers were unanimous in their motion that the resident electoral commissioner has portrayed himself as someone who is biased. They also called on the national leadership of INEC to repeat the registration exercise in the state as that supervised by Igini fell below the two million projected eligible voters. Only 1.2 million were captured out of a population of over 3.5 million.

No one is against Igini except himself. For a young man coming into national limelight for the first time, it is just natural that he worms his way into the hearts of people. If he chooses to make enemies rather than friends, then his fall is predictable.

Cross River is the most peaceful place to live and work in. Other Nigerians may have mistaken its hospitality for cowardice. Igini and other students of that school of thought should know that politics and government are arts of compromise, of weighing one concern against another. They should bear this in mind since they place ethical absolutism above all other interests.

Okon writes from Calabar