By Chinwe Ogbuka, Asst Director, Publicity.
5th February 2021.
Determined to address the lingering problem of declining access to polling units by eligible Nigerians to exercise their franchise on election day, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) has commenced consultations with critical stakeholders in the electoral process to find lasting solutions.
The first in the series of the planned engagements with various stakeholders – a consultative meetingbetween the Commission and leaders of political parties took place today at the Commission’s Conference Hall in Abuja.
In attendance were National Commissioners, Resident Electoral Commissioners who joined the meeting via Zoom, Secretary to the Commission, Technical Team of the Hon. Chairman and Directors of the Commission.
Addressing participants, INEC Chairman, Prof. Mahmood Yakubu welcomed leaders of political parties to the first consultative meeting for year 2021 and noted that “it is significant that we are commencing the series of engagements today with leaders of political parties. At each engagement, there will be a presentation followed by discussion.”. He expressed the hope that by doing so, the intention of the Commission would be communicated to Nigerians.
Prof. Yakubu explained that the essence of the consultations was to invite input from citizens across board on how “we can tackle the problem of voter access to polling units in our country and hopefully establish the framework for subsequent seamless adjustments as the need arises as is the case in virtually all democracies around the world.”
The INEC helmsman noted that the Commission had tried unsuccessfully to expand voter access to polling units in 2007, 2014 and before the 2019 General Election and observed that those attempts came too close to General Elections. “Consequently, the Commission’s intention was not properly communicated and therefore misunderstood and politicized,” he added.
The Chairman said that learning from previous experience, that the Commission has now decided to engage with Nigerians by consulting widely.
His words: “We have worked hard in the last two months and produced a Discussion Paper entitled, The State of Voter Access to Polling Units in Nigeria, prepared satellite imageries of the location of polling units across the country and prepared pictures and videos to demonstrate the difficulties faced by voters on Election Day.”
He regretted that the last time polling units were established in Nigeria was 25 years ago, in 1996 under the defunct National Electoral Commission of Nigeria (NECON), adding that there were about 120,000 polling units to serve a projected population of about 50 million voters then. The existing number of registered voters according to Prof. Yakubu is 84,004,084 and this is expected to rise when the Commission resumes voter registration ahead of 2023 General Election.
The Chairman observed that the biggest category of registered voters on the Commission’s data base (aged between 18 and 25 years) were not even born when the current polling units were established a quarter of a century ago.
He recalled that at the last meeting with leaders of the political parties, participants expressed concern about low turnout in elections in Nigeria and resolved that the expansion of voter access to polling units was crucial to voter turnout in elections.
The Chairman said that experience has shown that enhanced access to polling units increases voter turnout in elections, adding “not surprisingly, many countries expand access to polling units with every fresh registration of voters while others do so routinely or before every general election.”
According to the Chairman, “increase in voter population, emergence of new settlements, urbanization, distance to existing polling units, difficult terrain and other factors require constant review to give the voter a pleasant experience on Election Day.”
He further said that in the context of the COVID-19 global health emergency, “It is necessary to decongest polling units to minimize overcrowding and reduce the long distances voters travel, often in overcrowded means of transport, in order to vote during elections.”
Prof. Yakubu expressed confidence that by working together with stakeholders, “we will make history by finally solving this 25- year old problem of polling units in Nigeria. The Nigerian voter in particular and our democracy in general will be the biggest beneficiaries of increased access to polling units.”
National Commissioner and Chairman, Electoral Operations Committee of the Commission, Prof. Okechukwu Ibeanu made a presentation on The State of Voter Access to Polling Units in Nigeria. He showed graphically the congestion in the few existing polling units across the country, a situation he said creates room for violence and distortion in elections. Prof. Ibeanu explained that the problem of difficulty in access to polling units exists all over the country and should be seen as a general problem.