JOHN NWOKOCHA writes that against the backdrop of the controversy surrounding the alleged under-age persons’ involvement in the recent Kano state LG polls, and public outrage it has elicited, an advocacy on pubic enlightenment is recommended as a way forward, by civil society organisations
Controversy has continued to trail the Kano state local government election held on Saturday, February 10, over allegations of voting in the poll by a large number of underage persons, which if found to be true, is a clear violation of the nation’s electoral Act and which the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), has endeavored to uphold. For two weeks running attempts by groups and government authorities to mitigate public outrage arising from the alleged underage persons’ participation in the Kano council polls seem to be failing. Public perception of explanations by the government is that they are stage managed and cannot be trusted, and this has necessitated the widespread condemnation of the polls and electoral processes in general.
The alleged underage persons’ involvement in the Kano state local government polls, happens to be one of the emerging absurdities in the electoral process, causing loss of public confidence in the system.
It would be recalled that trending in public domain are photos and videos, evidently showing children eagerly thumb printing after they had scaled through the smart card hurdles and approval by officials. Expectedly, public outrage has greeted the social media reports inundated with images of children queuing to vote in the election exercise.
Besides, interrogating the still and motion pictures of underage children taking part in the electoral process during the Kano LG polls, circulating in the social media, by the public, the development is already fueling public fear that such irregularities could have negative implications for the forthcoming general elections. Also being contested is the result of the election, which the ruling APC won all the chairmanship and councilor seats in all the 44 local government areas of the state.
But responding to the widespread condemnation of the polls, the state Governor Umar Ganduje, debunked claims describing the reports as propaganda orchestrated by his political opponents loyal to former Governor Rabiu Kwankwaso.
“All those pictures are pictures of assembled children they took. So it’s not true. It is part of the propaganda”, Ganduje said.
The governor asserts, “Ask them did they go back to the state to queue up and take part in the election? They were not able to do so, we don’t even need to respond to such falsehood”.
“What is important is to ask those who are credible and who witnessed the election; that is what is important, than relying on the social media where things are crafted, we don’t rely on that”, Ganduje insisted.
INEC has not kept mum on the issue, as some government agencies indicted for abuse of processes, irregularities and sundry perversions of rules would have refused to speak to the media.
In its first response to the allegations, INEC explained that underage voters were registered because the lives of registration officers were being threatened.
Acknowledging the pictures of the underage voters, INEC stated that “as far as we can ascertain, they (the pictures) relate to a local government election conducted at the weekend (in Kano)”.
“While the Commission remains resolute in our commitment to sanitise the nation’s electoral process and deliver free, fair and credible elections, we cannot be held directly or vicariously liable for a process outside our legal purview,” the commission said.
Last Tuesday, INEC’s Director of Voters’ Education, Oluwole Uzzi, in a press statement, said the disturbing pictures did not relate to any election INEC conducted or had responsibility for. In other words, the commission had allayed fears over its capacity for credible elections.
Defence of INEC’s credibility
But speaking at the Election Project Plan Implementation workshop, held in Lagos, last Thursday, national chairman of INEC, Professor Mahmood Yakubu, said that the commission would study the sequence of the Kano local council polls and assured that the allegations will be investigated by INEC.
The INEC boss further assured that those behind the underage voting in the Kano local council election would be exposed.
Disclosing that the electoral body is putting modalities in place not only to guarantee credible election but also to ensure the timely readiness of the 2019 election budget, Professor Yakubu stressed that INEC would leave no stone unturned in its efforts to unmask those behind such inconsistency in the Kano LG poll, if there was really any.
He said: “By way of clarification, I wish to state that the commission is aware of the discussion around the voter register and the concern expressed in certain quarters on the possible prevalence of ineligible registrants on the voter register. The commission is equally concerned for the simple reason that the credibility of an election draws from the credibility of the voter register.
“The eligibility for registration as a voter in Nigeria is clearly defined in Section 12 (1) of the Electoral Act. This includes citizenship, residence and the attainment of the mandatory age of 18 years. Recent reports of violations by underage persons following the local government elections in Kano State are deeply disturbing.
“It is true that the State Independent Electoral Commission had requested from INEC a copy of the voter register. I can confirm also that a soft copy of the register was made available to the state. The voter register in Kano State is the one used for the 2015 general election. In July 2016, INEC used the same register to conduct a State Assembly by-election in Minjibir Constituency which has 78,210 registered voters spread across 126 polling units clustered in 11 Registration Areas (wards). “In that election conducted by INEC, no single incidence of underage voter was recorded. What therefore happened in the last local government election conducted by the State Electoral Commission? Was the voter register actually used or not? “We wish to assure Nigerians that the matter will be fully investigated. A national commissioner from INEC will lead a team to Kano next week involving technical staff of the commission drawn from the Voter Registry (VR), Information and Communications Technology (ICT) and the Electoral Operations (EOps) departments for an immediate and comprehensive investigation.”
CSOs responses on the issue
In the same vain, the Independent Service Delivery Monitoring Group (ISDMG), a consortium of civil society organisations has defended INEC’s integrity and capacity to conduct transparent, free and fair general elections in the country, stressing that public confidence in INEC in election management should not be eroded. While advocating increase in voter education and public enlightenment on electoral processes, ISDMG urged the public to pay diligent attention to improvements on elections organized by INEC so far, across the country, even though they are incremental progress. Stating that the plot to destroy INEC is stereotype, the civil society group called for strengthening of State Independent Electoral Commissions, “so that the incremental progress by INEC will go round”.
Not only that, the group also seeks sanctity of SIECs, and condemned the appointment of Caretaker Committees to run the affairs of local governments in defiance of the definite pronouncement of the Supreme Court of Nigeria, which according to it has impacted negatively on the independence and integrity of the SIECs.
As part of its advocacy, the ISDMG also canvassed for the true independence of SIECs such that democracy at the grass roots can be fully participatory by citizens, in view of recent development in Kano state.
Also, the group condemns state governors and Houses of Assembly, who reschedule local council elections arbitrarily, actions inconsistent with the provision of the Act setting up the SIECs. It stated categorically that “We also condemn the sack of State Independent Electoral Commissions Chairpersons and Commissioners by some State Governor for failing to deliver 100% success in the Local Government Elections”.
Speaking on the issue, a member of ISDMG, and a veteran election monitor, Mrs Faith Nwadishi, observed that INEC has not failed on its mandate of national elections management. She argues that both federal and state governments must evolve functional data base that will guarantee fraud free electoral processes throughout the country. In her view, with the existing porous borders coupled with ECOWAS rule that allows free entry and stay for 90 days, high chances exist for none Nigerians to be used by mischievous officials to mar the electoral processes with the motive of rubbishing INEC.
Another respondent, Comrade Ezenwa Nwagwu, co-convener of ‘Say No Campaign and chairman, Partners for Electoral Reform, said unscrupulous politicians were perfecting strategies to derail the 2019 general elections . Nwagwu, who is also a member of ISDMG, said, “Politicians are busy rolling out strategies to rubbish INEC. We will borrow muscles to INEC to ensure that corrupt politicians do not succeed with their plans”. He asked: Is Kano scenario unique? Noting that similar scenes were recreated in Edo, Kwara, Akwa Ibom, Delta, Sokoto and Lagos council polls and results favourable to the ruling parties were declared, he urged Nigerians to work together, cooperate with INEC to eliminate untoward happenings during elections.
For Dr Chima Amadi, Executive Director of ISDMG, INEC is not complicit in the Kano council polls debacle. He said the alleged stuffing of ballot boxes without recourse to due process, smart card reader, PVC and voters’ register was condemnable. Although he did not support scrapping of SIECs, when asked if SIECs should go based on allegations of compromise and abuse of their office, Amadi said it was the constitutional responsibility of SIECs to conduct council elections and should take the blame where irregularities were allowed. He declared that there was no attempt to recourse to the 2015 voters’ register given to the KASIEC, by INEC. Amadi expressed confidence in INEC to conduct free, fair and credible elections in the country, maintaining that “such irregularities as played out in the Kano council elections can’t happen at national elections”.
However, in moving forward, the ISDMG said it subscribes to reforms that target an amendment of the Constitution of the federal Republic of Nigeria, which provides a definite and uniform tenure for all the local governments in Nigeria.
In order to ensure that state governors do not impose chairpersons and commissioners of the SIECs to conduct local government elections at their whim and caprices, the group proposes another amendment to the Constitution to guarantee financial autonomy to the SIECs.
Also checkmate recurrence of the Kano scenarios in future elections, Prof. Yakubu had vowed that the electoral body would make its findings public to allay further doubts about his commission to deliver on its mandate.