Is INEC ready for February polls?

INEC-Attahiru-JegaBy Ochiaka Ugwu

Upon all the challenges, obstacles and hiccups facing the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), one could be right to say that the electoral umpire has been living up to the expectations of an average Nigerian especially judging from the outcome of the Anambra, Ekiti and the Osun governorship elections.

But INEC no doubt needs to buckle up towards the February general elections. February is at the corner and INEC should be ready to face multiple hurdles. It is disheartening that barely two months to the next general elections, the Nigeria’s electoral umpire under the leadership of an erudite Professor, Attahiru Jega is facing many challenges, including confidence crisis.

The first litmus test for the commission was the ‘continues voters’ registration exercise’ which most analysts have adjudged to have failed or at most a partial success. INEC kick-started the continuous voters’ registrations exercise in the states. The exercise, which was conducted between November 12 and 17, was later extended to November 19 due to logistics problems. But in spite of the extension, most people who are eager of exercising their franchise who had repeatedly visited the polling unit in the hope of getting themselves registered were disappointed day after day without success.  Not even their plea with the authority or the ad-hoc staff that were in charge of the centres could make them get registered.

Many Nigerians from all walks of life are among the millions of prospective voters whose hopes of getting registered ahead of the 2015 election were dashed despite alleged attempts by every means to have their way to do so. The exercise was also alleged to have been marred by several other irregularities ranging from late arrival of materials, late commencement, and hijacking of the process by people loyal to one political party or the other, undue influence of electoral officers, unserviceable printers and failure of computer batteries, as well as engagement of incompetent ad-hoc staff. It was alleged that the hitches prompted politicians into inducing INEC officials to register them in their private homes. Some INEC officials were allegedly arrested while conducting the exercise at the private homes of some politicians.

Although stakeholders and opinion moulders reportedly appealed to INEC to extend the exercise to allow prospective voters to be registered, some of them threatened to institute a legal action against the commission noting that people were highly mobilized both in the rural and urban areas and were willing to participate in the exercise that will enable them to play their role in the political recompose of the nation. They came out in their hundreds for the exercise but their hopes were dashed by the commission. Some who did not want to see it as sabotage are of the view that it is an indication of lack of capacity by the commission to carry out a national assignment.

Upon the declaration of a public holiday by almost all the states’ government to enable civil servants participate in the exercise; it was characterized by tales of woe on the very first day as prospective voters were allegedly made to wait for several hours before the coming of INEC officials. In FCT, even with the extension of days for voters to cross-check their names in the displayed voters register and collect their PVCs in exchange for the old ones, residents said they did not see INEC officials at the polling units where they had registered in 2011 with most of them spending hours waiting for officials who never came. The controversies generated in some states over the non-availability of permanent voters’ cards have raised doubts over the successful conduct of the February general elections. In spite of repeated assurances by the INEC that there was no cause for alarm, not many Nigerians agreed with the electoral umpire. Many pundits have

spoken their minds on the issue which raises doubt whether INEC will be able to conduct hitch free elections.

They alleged fears on the distribution of permanent voters’ card which they described as unfortunate saying that so much confusion had characterized the exercise. To them, it seems that the electoral body does not understand the enormity of the challenge of distributing the cards. They did not plan the distribution well; they clustered the distribution and that is part of the challenge. The distribution should have started earlier than now. It is coming too close to the elections and the political parties/ aspirants would want to make political capital out of any challenge the electoral management body has.

It is regrettable that the exercise designed to bring about electoral sanity had been grossly mismanaged. Nigerians are aware that the distribution of PVC had been so poorly conducted in many parts of the country with PVCs yet to be distributed in some LGAs till now.

Another hurdle INEC may be facing over the successful conduct of the February general elections is further compounded by the current insurgency in the North-Eastern part of the country. This has raised questions not only over the possibility of conducting elections in the affected states but also the voting rights of the thousands of internally displaced persons from the zone, many of who have relocated to other parts of the country as refugees.

Given the situation in this states and the spate of insurgents’ activities, the hope of internally displaced persons voting in February polls will be difficult and the election may turn out to be a wishful thinking.

It is the hope of every Nigerian that the February elections be held in every state. But it may eventually remain just a wish. The reality is that all the indices that point to the possibility of holding elections in these states ravaged by insurgency show a negative trend. Because Boko Haram had practically occupied nearly a half of these states, while most of the displaced residents lost their voter cards, thus making it difficult for many to participate in the elections. Only God knows the magic the electoral body will do to remedy the situation.

Not many think that the special polling centres suggested by INEC would solve the riddle. They however, noted that the majority of the displaced live outside camps with thousands crossing to other states and neighbouring countries for peaceful habitation.

Another issue of concern to political observers ahead of the February polls is that of printing ballot papers. There has also been allegations that INEC was under pressure to print ballot papers locally ahead of the elections.  The controversy over whether INEC should print ballot papers locally or otherwise stems from the argument concerning the security of the electoral materials.  The controversy arises over fears of politicians hijacking the process.

Reacting to this, the former governor of old Kaduna State, Alhaji Balarabe Musa said, “If INEC is confident that there are places they can print the ballot papers without creating any suspicion or attempt by anybody to duplicate them in order to rig elections, let INEC test the confidence of Nigerians. But if they think it would be more secure to print outside for the purpose of securing peoples’ votes, it should go ahead. What Nigerians are interested in is not where ballot papers are printed, but the security and safety of their votes”.

But in spite of the obvious challenges facing the nation’s electoral umpire, the Chief Press Secretary to the INEC Chairman, Mr. Kayode Idowu said there was no cause for alarm as the commission was prepared to deliver credible elections.

The major question in the lips of every Nigerian is that given the apparently tough challenges ahead of the February general election, will the Professor Attahiru Jega-led INEC steer the murky waters to ensure a free and fair poll?

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