Eternal vigilance, as they say, is the price of liberty. And so, it is welcome when stakeholders in any project raise the red flag – even if presumptuously – on any concern they suspect could shortchange an objective outcome desired from that project. Doing this helps to deflect insidious schemes that could be contemplated, or perhaps already underway, to compromise the integrity of the said project. But such red flags must be fact or evidence-based to be truly helpful.
The impending 2019 general election in Nigeria is doubtless a major national project that requires diligent stake-in by everyone to ensure its success. And lately, the Southern and Middle Belt Leaders Forum mounted an advocacy about alleged duplicity in the national register of voters, which the group accused the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) of midwifing and for which it canvassed a change in the body’s leadership.
According to the forum, INEC has been registering foreigners, especially from Niger Republic, under its ongoing Continuous Voter Registration (CVR). And that, for the group, isn’t to mention a suspicion that the voter register already is shot through with underage registrants as revealed by visuals from the Kano State local government election held in February, this year. In short, the voter register, in the group’s view, could already be discredited beyond any stretch of makeover.
The regional leaders also accused the electoral commission of short-shrifting with public disclosure on its investigation of the Kano council poll debacle, hence they proposed an independent interrogation of the national voter register during which INEC Chairman Professor Mahmoud Yakubu would stay off the helm at the commission.
In a communiqué following its meeting in Lagos penultimate weekend, the forum stated: “Five clear months after the promise (of a probe) and prompt conclusion of the assignment by the team he set up, the INEC chairman has refused to release the report, which would have necessitated a nationwide interrogation of the voter register.”
The group made demands it considered remedial in the circumstance, one of which is: “Interrogation of the voter register by a judicial commission with representatives from international and local election observers, to check cases of underage voters and foreign mercenaries before 2019 elections.” It added: “This is necessary as INEC cannot be a judge in its own case…The suspension of the INEC chair while the investigation is on is to prevent intervention with the probe.”
Barely a week earlier, the leaders forum had alleged nepotistic designs by President Muhammadu Buhari in Yakubu’s appointment as INEC helmsman, among others. “Our fear that the current INEC chairman may not be able to discharge his functions impartially because he hails from the same region as the President is not unfounded,” its spokesman had said after a meeting of the group in Abuja.
Let’s make it clear upfront that the professed mission of the leaders forum, namely to champion broad interests of regions represented by its members, can by no means be faulted – especially with the eminence and elderly status of the leading lights. In other words, the group’s exertions are substantially beneficial to the regions represented. All we seek to do here therefore, with due respect, is interrogate the rationale of its electoral advocacy.
For a start, it requires no special knack of patriotism to know that the voter register is a national asset that should be treasured and collectively watched over by stakeholders against corruption by ineligible registrants. And so, when threats to its credibility are being red-flagged, especially by reputable interests, it is expected that this will be substantially evidential.
When the leaders forum cited Intel reports that foreigners are being registered under the CVR, for instance, it invariably begs the question of how this is being done. Is the electoral commission taking direct data capture machines over Nigeria’s borders to register aliens in their countries, in which case it would be a culpable protagonist of the alleged violation; or are the purported mercenaries being bused into this country by partisans with possible collusion of Immigration officials, whereby INEC is only a hapless victim needing all the help it can get from an alert public to block the subversion of its statutory processes? Convention and common logic readily advise that it is highly unlikely the electoral commission is taking its data equipment for use across Nigeria’s borders. And if foreigners are being brought into our country for the CVR, the commission needs the public’s help and not detraction to checkmate the invasion. Only that the leaders forum did not even give scant evidence of either way being the case.
The grouse of the leaders forum with INEC over the Kano underage voter scandal could as well be interrogated. The group is totally on point in its observation that it is five months clear since the electoral body concluded its probe of the scandal, with no consequential publication of the probe report. But it helps, perhaps, not to lose sight that the said inquiry was conducted by an in-house INEC panel that submitted its report, as expected, for the commission’s internal consumption and action.
If memory serves us well, the INEC chair issued a position paper to the public from the probe report in which he disclosed the finding that Kano State Independent Electoral Commission (KSIEC) did not deploy the voter register provided it by INEC for the conduct of the council poll. I do not recall KSIEC refuting that claim. And the obvious implication is that the visuals of underage voters taken from the council poll were not indicative of what really exists on the national register. The INEC chief nonetheless outlined measures that have been put in place for continual cleaning of the register and solicited the public’s support as needful.
I make bold to say the propriety of publishing the in-house probe report is moot, because it really is an internal document just like any other. But it is also a document of which the public already has a fair idea of the high points. A summary was made of the findings by the INEC chairman and issued to the public, and no other member of the commission or indeed the probe panel has headed up a claim that the publicised summary in comparison to the very report fails the accuracy test. So, it is all much ado about publishing the in-house probe report.
The leaders forum argued, of course, that publication of the probe report “would have necessitated a nationwide interrogation of the voter register.” But there are clear provisions in the Electoral Act 2010 (as amended) on processes for such undertaking, part of which the electoral body can’t but implement on a continual basis. That is the reason it always makes the voter register available to political parties ahead of elections, so they can probe and flag as the deem warranted. Actually, there is also a provision for eligible persons or groups to request the voter register from INEC, and the commission is obliged to make it available upon payment by the requestor of prescribed fees.
Under our electoral law, interrogation of the voter register can’t be by way of intervention from “a judicial commission with representatives from international and local election observers” as proposed by the leaders forum. Much less so is INEC abdicating while the process is being undertaken, just so that it will not be a judge in its own case. What the law prescribes is for the electoral body to display the updated register within a stipulated time for claims and objections by the public, which the commission is bound to address in updating the register.
We need not bother here, perhaps, to interrogate the merit of the allegation of nepotistic designs in Yakubu’s incumbency at INEC, because the leaders forum before the 2015 general election pushed a similar cause for removal of ex-INEC Chairman Professor Attahiru Jega, who was appointed and served nearly all of his tenure under former President Goodluck Jonathan of the South-South stock. The appointive equation was quite different then, but the advocacy was the same.
A credible register is fundamental to staging credible elections, and INEC should by all means be constantly called to account on its responsibilities. But care must be exercised that demands on the electoral body is not reduced to crying wolf.
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