The elections are 11 days away and instead of a sense of urgency from the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), some civil society organizations say they get a sense that things are ‘slowing’ down. There are several things that INEC has to sort out, have ready and presumably communicate to the public before the elections start on April 2. And while we hope that everything will be ready, there is no question that for those worried about the massive and hopefully uncontrollable (in a good way) groundswell of public interest in the 2011 elections, slowing things down is to their advantage. This is because the more last minute the arrangements are, the more opportunity for shoddy preparations and shady dealings which will provide the platform for electoral fraud.
The most pressing issue, and the one we hope INEC is focusing most of its attention on is the question of how many registered voters INEC is preparing for at each polling unit. For some reason the number 500 keeps coming up even though the Electoral Act is silent on this issue and election process observers believe that due to the unprecedented number of registered voters – new polling units will have to be created to manage the extra numbers. For instance, during the registration process, INEC center PU 023 in Ministers Hill, Maitama Abuja, registered at least 2000 Nigerians. We know from the verification exercise that not all of those who registered at that center were captured as potential voters for that center and if indeed only 500 people are going to be accommodated at each center, where should the extra go? We need to know this now so we can make arrangements since movement is usually restricted during elections. According to the election timetable, INEC plans to publish notice of poll information on the 18th of March which covers the dates and hours for election, those entitled to vote and the polling units. Hopefully the communication will be on multiple platforms, not just the INEC website because we need this information to be disseminated as widely as possible. Other wise, many will be disenfranchised especially in the rural areas where the most fraud is allegedly perpetuated.
Next is the issue of multiple registration. One published account says at least 800,000 people are guilty of multiple registration or is it that the number by which the total number of registered voters has been inflated due to multiple registration? We are being diverted by the story that ‘prominent figures’ have registered multiple times and the demand for these names to be released. The real question is: how does INEC intend to stop those guilty of multiple registration from voting during the elections if INEC does not intend to use the fingerprints from the registration exercise?
Another troubling issue is the story that before voting begins the polling officials will carry out a verification exercise to ensure that everyone there is entitled to vote there before, voting starts. The time allocated for this verification exercise is from 9am to 12 noon. What happens if all 2000+ people who registered turn up to vote in PU 023? Can the polling unit officials really be expected to verify ALL these people before voting begins? Opposition parties, international observers and activists need to take this issue up immediately and get clarification from INEC. A better idea would be to have the two exercises happening simultaneously: verification at one desk and voting at the next.
How can the electorate, armed with the experience of past rigging and with knowledge of all the areas where ‘trouble’ will creep, ensure that elections take place efficiently and fairly? The ball is not solely in INEC’s side of the court; we can do our best to make sure the game goes our way and our votes are made and counted.
One of the things communities around a polling unit can do to protect their mandate is to prepare the infrastructure for the polling booth officials. Let’s get at least two tables and as many chairs as possible under a shade first thing in the morning on voting day and not give the polling booth officials any excuse to waste precious time. Also where possible let’s create our own make shift voting booths to have a little privacy for voters. The ballot box should remain in the open where everyone can see it but around the table where the ballot is going to be marked we can either use tacks and heavy cardboard or even old cartons to build walls on the table by tacking the cardboard to the top of the table. Or where the location is suitable, just use a curtain and a rope to shield voters from those who want to influence them. If you create this booth early, before voting starts, it will make it harder for anyone to argue against it.
And although the Electoral Act says polling officials should not be given any ‘gifts’ – I think it is acceptable to arrange for a cooler with cold water and a few drinks and even arrange for food sometime in the afternoon to ensure the polling officials have no reason to take breaks in order to find something to eat and drink.
Another thing is to be armed with the necessary phone numbers for the resident electoral commissioner and other local INEC officials. Don’t waste too much time trying to call because many people might have the same idea and the lines might be busy – instead send SMS messages with all the required information such as the PU number, the location and what the problem is.
Above all, do not forget that we will be doing this three times (don’t know whose bright idea that was) and hopefully we’ll improve with each experience. Let’s caution each other to be patient, to be calm and to be determined to contribute to the development of democracy in Nigeria. Every vote must count in this election, let’s get set to make it happen.
March 17, 2011