By Mahmood Yakubu
Following the Kano State Local Government election held on 10th February 2018, there were several reports in the media, particularly the social media, alleging that underaged persons voted in the election. Both explicit and implicit in some of these reports was the suggestion that since the National Register of Voters compiled by INEC was used in the election, the alleged problem of underaged voting in the Kano Local Government election is linked to a prevalence of underaged registrants in the National Register of Voters.
I must note that till date, not a single formal complaint on this matter has been received by the Commission. Rather, some stakeholders, including a political party, have taken to the media to criticize INEC and in some cases to impugn the integrity of the National Register of Voters. Concerned that some of the claims being made about the Register could create doubts in the minds of citizens about INEC’s preparations for the forthcoming general elections, the Commission on 21st February 2018 set up an investigation panel into the allegations that underaged persons voted in the Kano State Local Government election, using the Register of Voters given to the Kano State Independent Electoral Commission (KANSIEC) by INEC, as prescribed by law.
For the avoidance of doubt, let me emphasize first, that INEC was not in any way involved in organizing the Kano State Local Government election beyond the legal requirement that the register of voters compiled by INEC should be used in all Local Government elections nationwide. The conduct of that election was entirely the responsibility of KANSIEC. Secondly, let me also emphasize that the investigative committee was not established to inquire into the general conduct of the Kano State Local Government election or to inquire into the organization or challenges of KANSIEC. Indeed, INEC has no legal remit to do so. Rather, as the Terms of Reference of the Committee show, its role was strictly to inquire into claims linking the register of voters compiled by INEC and the alleged incidents of underaged voting in the election.
The investigative committee had National Commissioner Engineer Abubakar Nahuche as Chairman, another National Commissioner Barrister May Agbamuche-Mbu, two Resident Electoral Commissioners (Barristers Mike Igini and Kassim Geidam) as well as some Directors and staff of the Commission, who are experts in ICT, as members. It has since submitted its Report. The Commission has carefully considered the report and accepted its findings and recommendations. Based on its Terms of Reference, there are four key points in the findings and recommendations of the Committee, which may be summarised as follows:
i. Kano State Independent Electoral Commission requested for and received from INEC the Kano State Register of Voters for the election. The Register was produced for use for the elections. However, the Register was only sighted in a few polling units. In other words, the Register was not used in most of the polling units. In fact, accreditation using the Permanent Voter’s Card (PVC) largely did not take place.
ii. Given that the Register was substantially not used to accredit voters before voting, it is logical to conclude that if underaged voting occurred in the election, it was not due to any presence of underaged registrants on the Register of Voters. However, after examining some of the images in circulation, the Committee found that they have been available long before the Kano Local Government Elections. The few images and video clips from Kano show no accreditation of voters or any relationship with the Register of Voters.
iii. There is need and ample room for collaboration between INEC and all stakeholders to continue to update and improve the National Register of Voters to eliminate all ineligible registrants from it, including dead persons, aliens and underaged registrants.
iv. INEC should work with the State Independent Electoral Commissions (SIECs) to ensure continuous improvements in the quality of all elections conducted in Nigeria.
Since the central interest of the Commission and Nigerians in this remains the National Register of Voters because it is the bedrock of the 2019 general elections, let me share with you a few facts about the current register of voters.
Essentially, the present register of voters is the one compiled by the last Commission in 2011. Recall that before 2011, the register of voters was full of errors including strange entries like Mike Tyson, incorrect entries and misplaced records. Although the pre-2011 register was supposed to contain the fingerprints of registrants, the last Commission found that most of the fingerprints were missing or of very poor quality. Also, there were integration issues and a lot of data were lost because they were collected using incompatible platforms. In addition, there were multiple registrations, as there was minimal attempt to remove multiple entries from the register. These were some of the problems that the last Commission tried to solve by embarking on fresh registration of voters in 2011.
Since the 2011 general elections, the Commission has been updating this register in accordance with the law along three lines: (i) addition of new registrants from the Continuous Voter Registration (CVR); (ii) more stringent running of the Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS) to identify multiple registrants and remove them; and (iii) updating incomplete records such as entries with incomplete fingerprints and wrongly spelt names among others. These became particularly important with the introduction of the PVC and Smart Card Reader (SCR). For this reason, records without fingerprints had to be updated, otherwise, the concerned voters will not be able to vote using the PVC and SCR. As a result of these updates and clean up, a final register of 68,833,476 was used for the 2015 general elections.
Consequently, this Commission believes that it inherited a register that:
i. Meets a high standard of biometric registration. In fact, many other countries have subsequently learnt from INEC in handling their own registers. For instance, during the recent Presidential election in Liberia, the country’s National Electoral Commission (NEC), through the United Nations, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the ECOWAS Network of Electoral Commissions (ECONEC), which I currently chair, requested the services of INEC staff to sort out issues with their register. Their work has been highly commended by these organisations and the diplomatic community for contributing to the success of the Liberian election;
ii. Contains 68.8 million valid entries, easily the largest single database of Nigerians in existence;
iii. Supports fingerprint matching for authentication of voters during elections using the SCR;
iv. Supports the introduction of machine readable, chip-based PVC; and
v. Ensures continuous updating through the Continuous Voter Registration, as prescribed by law.
Under the present INEC, only 432,233 new registrants have been added to our national Voter Register. This represents 0.9 percent increase on the Register used for the 2015 general elections. These additions came essentially from the CVR carried out in 2015 and 2016 in States where we conducted off-season Governorship elections namely Bayelsa, Kogi, Edo and Ondo as well as the FTC Area Council elections. From April 2017 when we commenced the CVR to December of the same year, some 3,981,502 new registrants were recorded, including figures from Anambra State Governorship election held in November 2017. This figure represents the first major additions to the Register since this Commission came on board. Even so, except for the 190,767 new registrants added to the voter register in Anambra State, the new registrants are just about to be added to the national Register.
It is important to remind us that this National Register of Voters has been used to conduct the 2011 and 2015 general elections, as well as several re-run, off-season and by-elections. Most of these elections have not only been adjudged to meet international standards but have also produced varied outcomes for different political parties at different times. Indeed, the Register used in the Kano Local Government election of 10th February 2018 was the one compiled in 2011, updated in 2014 and used for the 2015 general elections. This Commission did not add a single name to the voter register. As with all elections, some political parties have won and some have lost using the same Register. In fact, many constituencies have changed from one political party to another between elections on the basis of the same Register. Therefore, for anyone to suggest that the same register, on the basis of which political parties have won and lost elections at different times, is suddenly unreliable is curious to say the least.
Let me reiterate that this Commission is convinced that we now have a dependable register, even if it is not perfect. We believe that it is a huge national asset, easily the largest database of Nigerians in existence today containing over 70 million entries of names, addresses, photographs, ten fingerprints, telephone numbers etc. I implore all Nigerians to see the value of this national asset and work with the Commission to continue to improve it. Considering that there are few if any perfect voters roll anywhere, we can continue to work together with stakeholders and indeed all citizens to ensure that all ineligible registrants and entries are removed from the register and that eligible voters who have not registered take advantage of the ongoing CVR.
Let me also share with you what we have been doing and what we plan to do as a Commission to continue to update the register and remove ineligible entries from it.
First, we have made registration more continuous than ever before, starting from April 2017. We regularly display the provisional register after each CVR exercise for claims and objections, as required by law. This usually lasts between 5 and 14 days. We appeal to Nigerians to always use the opportunity of this display to alert the Commission about ineligible registrants, including underaged persons and aliens, as well as incorrect details of registrants.
Second, also as required by law, we have consistently given political parties copies of the register for each year and ahead of general elections as well as Governorship off-season elections. Only recently, on 28th February 2018, we gave each of the 68 political parties a copy of the register containing names of the 3.9 million new voters registered in 2017. We urged them to use the register not only to reach out to voters, but also to check whether there are ineligible persons on the list and draw the attention of the Commission to them. Unfortunately, since this Commission was inaugurated in 2015, there has not been a single report from any political party of ineligible voters on the Register.
Third, we have been working with the Nigerian Immigration Service to eliminate aliens from the Register by confiscating PVCs from aliens who are not entitled to vote, thereby identifying them for removal from the Register. Furthermore, the Immigration Service has promised to post their officials to registration centres during CVR to check the incidence of alien registrants.
Fourth, we intend through our Registration Area Officers (RAOs) to engage communities in all our 8,809 Registration Areas or Wards on a continuous basis to identify deceased persons and other ineligible registrants for removal from the Register. We have developed a RAOs Log Book specifically for this engagement. We appeal to Nigerians to cooperate with them in identifying ineligible registrants for removal.
Fifth, we intend to include major civil society groups and the media in the publication of the Register of Voters in the future. Section 20 of the Electoral Act 2010 (as amended) provides that the Register be published 30 days before a general election. In addition to political parties, we intend to include other categories of stakeholders by making available copies of the register to them. Of course, this is without prejudice to the right of every Nigerian to apply for and receive the Register on the payment of the necessary fees as enshrined in the Electoral Act. We hope that CSOs and the media will also join in identifying ineligible registrants for removal.
Sixth, after the ongoing CVR, which as the law provides will end not later than 60 days to the forthcoming general elections on 16th February 2019 – please note that the law says not later than 60 days, which means that the CVR must end on or before the 60th day to the election – we intend to display not only the provisional register, but the entire Register at all the Registration Areas/Wards across the country. This again will provide a good opportunity for all citizens to interrogate the Register and identify ineligible registrants, including underaged persons, for removal.
Finally, the Commission notes the recommendation of the Nahuche Committee that collaboration between INEC and SIECs is necessary to improve the quality of elections in Nigeria, including Local Government elections. In fact, INEC has forged a longstanding relationship with the Forum of State Independent Electoral Commissions of Nigeria (FORSIECON), the umbrella body of SIECs. We shall continue to collaborate with FORSIECON towards establishing robust pathways to improving the quality of all elections conducted in Nigeria. Some of the ideas already mooted include drafting of a model law establishing SIECs to bring them in line with the Electoral Act and global best practices, as well as the development of voluntary “Guiding Principles for the Conduct of Free, Fair and Credible Elections in Nigeria” to which we expect all 37 Election Management Bodies in Nigeria to accede.
Ironically there has been a silver lining in the cloud of allegations of underaged voting in the Kano State Local Government elections. It is providing the Commission an opportunity to take another look at the Register and to engage with stakeholders on how to continue to update and improve it, particularly through the removal of ineligible registrants. As we have consistently promised Nigerians, as a Commission, we shall continue to be open to criticisms, accept shortcomings and take bold corrective steps whenever necessary. All we ask is for Nigerians to see election and the processes related to it, not as the business of INEC alone, but as a collective national project.
* Prof Yakubu is the Chairman, Independent National Electoral Commission.