By Prof Mahmoud Yakubu
What is the state of voter access to Polling Units in Nigeria? The simple answer is that it is in a state of crisis, and it has been so for some time. And the crisis occurs because existing Polling units can no longer substantially guarantee the exercise of that fundamental right to vote by citizens. And this crisis affects all parts of the country. There is no part of the country that is not affected by the situation.
Existing polling units in Nigeria, numbering 119, 973 were established in 1996. They are a quarter of a century old. They are no longer adequate in number, they are no longer conducive for voters to freely vote, especially in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. They are also unsuitable for the Commission to properly manage elections and to ensure that rules and regulations are strictly followed.
What are the manifestations of this crisis in the Polling Units? The first one is overcrowding. Virtually all the polling Units in Nigeria are over-crowded. Because of that, the Polling Units are prone to violence, they are unhealthy for voters and officials, some are located in conflict areas, some in homes of political chieftains, in forests and in shrines. The Commission has moved quite a number of them from unsuitable locations to more suitable locations, but there are still some of them in problematic locations and they contribute to poor electoral services rendered by the Commission, which include late commencement of polls and the disruption of elections. There is also a decline in voter turnout which we believe is partially related to the issue of Polling Units.
In 2007 because of the problem of access, the Commission created what we call the Baby Polling Units. These are Polling Units attached to the main Polling Units but apart from the Units. Usually, problems arose when results were being collated. By the time the results of the smaller polling units were brought, some people questions where those votes were coming from.
In 2011, the problem grew and the number of registered voters in the country also grew, resulting in the creation of Voting Points. In 2016, because of the crises of Voting Points in the Federal Capital Territory, it is the only place where INEC conducts local government elections, we had to create Voting Points for new settlements. You can imagine that in the whole of Apo, there is only one Polling Unit. Any other thing you see there is a Voting Point attached to the Polling Unit.
In Gwarimpa, we have a maximum of four Polling Units serving what is the largest housing estate in Africa. So, on election day, if you visit the Government Secondary School, Apo, you’ll come face-to-face with the crisis, but it is not just peculiar to Apo.
PROPOSED FRAMEWORK FOR SOLVING THE PROBLEM
What is our proposed framework for solving the problem that has festered for the last quarter of a century? The last time Polling Units were established in Nigeria was under the defunct National Electoral Commission of Nigeria (NECON) way back in 1996. No new Polling Unit has been established since then.
The first proposal is for residents to apply for Polling Units, and the application goes through verification and approval. This is consistent with the powers of the Commission under Section 42 of the Electoral Act which empowers the Commission to establish Polling Units and to allot voters to them. But this process is going to take a long time. So many groups have been writing the Commission asking for Polling Units, but the Commission did not request communities or individuals to apply for Polling Units. Not just Polling Units, citizens have also been asking for more Wards to be created; some have been asking for more State Constituencies to be established in some cases, even the things that we cannot do under the Constitution – creation of additional Federal Constituencies and even Senatorial Districts.
So, the first option will be for us under Section 42 of the Electoral Act to create and populate those Polling Units. It will take time to receive requests, it will take time to process and between now and the next General Election, it’s 729 days, one day shy of two years. The next election will hold on Saturday 18th February 2023.
The second option is to create Polling Areas under Section 13 of the Electoral Act and align them with the Registration Areas of the National Population Commission (NPC). We have been working with the NPC on this, but we haven’t made much progress. We have been working with the Population Commission since 2017 to align the enumeration areas to the Registration Areas but so far, we have covered a little over 240 local government areas out of 774. If in four years we have only covered 240 LGAs, it will take the next 10 years to cover all the 774 LGAs. It’s a good thing for the Commission to aspire to and for the nation as well, so that next time there is a population census, we’ll just adjust figures accordingly. But we’ll continue to work with the NPC. This is an option, but it is also cumbersome. It will require time and substantial amount of resources.
The third option is for us to consider converting the Voting Points and Voting Point Settlements into full-fledged autonomous Polling Units.
We believe that there are unserved areas of the country that can be better served by distributing the existing Voting Points and Voting Point Settlement into full-fledged Polling Units and relocating them to areas of need in the underserved areas. If that is done, we believe it will ease the pressure. And what is the justification? We are looking at five reasons why we think that is the most feasible option.
The first one is that the Voting Points have been used since 2011, therefore, they are well known and have been accepted as the basis for conducting elections since 2011. Citizens are familiar with them.
Number two, unserved areas can be easily verified using maps and the good thing is that we now have satellite imageries of the location of all our Polling Units nationwide.
Number three, conversion will require less time and resources. This is something that we can do easily on the basis of the information that we have.
Number four, it will address the substantial number of requests that we have received so far for the creation of Polling Units.
And number five, it is likely to be the least controversial of the three options.
Many of you here will recall the attempt by the last Commission to create additional Polling Units in 2014 and how it became so politicised that the Commission had to drop it. In 2018 we tried it, we also dropped it. Both came on the eve of General Elections. Learning from that experience, we thought we could start early and then consult widely. Part of the reason why we didn’t quite succeed in 2014 was our failure to consult. So far, we have consulted with the Political Parties, Civil Society Organisations, the Media and we have started with the socio-cultural associations. Only two days ago (16th February), we were in Kaduna with the Arewa Consultative Forum. And then PANDEF, Afenifere, Ohanaeze have promised to give us a date soon. We are also briefing the Federal Executive Council and the National Council of State and the National Assembly as part of this consultation. Our idea is to build a broad national consensus that will help us solve this 25-year-old problem.
We have evidence from across the field in terms of still pictures, videos and satellite images that we would like to quickly share to illustrate the kind of crises that we are talking about. We have some maps, and these maps and videos will demonstrate that our Polling Units are actually overcrowded. The problem affects all parts of the country. Our Polling Units are clustered in a few areas and they are very large areas adjoining the location of Polling Units that are completely unserved.
1. Surulere, Lagos – 1996 (Satellite Image showing PUs and unserved areas)
2. Karu LGA of Nasarawa State (Only 4 polling Units serving the entire population there. Mararaba Garage 1 has one PU and 18 VPs; Mararaba Garage II, one PU, 19 VPs; Mararaba White House – 1PU, 29 VPs; Mararaba Sharp Corner – 14 VPs; in the areas, 4 PUs, 80VPs ).
3. Edo State
4. Adamawa (a crowded PU in Yola on 23rd February 2019)
5. Video (Karu, Nasarawa State. Crowded PU)
Your excellencies, this is the crisis that the nation is facing and we believe that together we can find a solution. Voter access is critical to the exercise of democratic rights. It goes beyond mere creation of Polling Units. Polling Units must also be conducive to voters in exercising their rights and suitable for the Commission to perform its function.
Over politicization of what should be an administrative matter and inadequate consultation as I said earlier have undermined previous attempts to find a permanent solution, hence this effort to consult nationwide. The problem is disenfranchising millions of Nigerians and could damage the credibility of elections in Nigeria if it is not solved. The problem is nationwide. We have over 5700 requests as of October 2020. By Monday last week, the number has increased to 9,777 unsolicited. Nothing to do with the proposal by the Commission to create Polling Units on the basis of solicitation by citizens.
In other jurisdictions expanding voter access to Polling Units is purely administrative and Nigeria should aim for that. Afterall, until not too long ago in this country, the equivalent of Eos (Electoral Officers) that head our local government offices created Polling Units. Now, EOs can’t create Polling Units, Resident Electoral Commissioners cannot create Polling Units, even INEC at the national level cannot create Polling Units as recent experiences have shown and hence this consultation. We must together solve this problem. We are proposing that the conversion of Voting Points and Voting Point Settlements to Polling Units offers the least controversial, timely and inexpensive solution to this Polling Unit crisis.
We believe that state governors can play a role by helping to depoliticize the issues involved and supporting the Commission in our quest to build a national consensus in order to solve the problem.
I started by talking about the right of citizens to vote. But the right to vote cannot be exercised without a place to vote.
Your Excellency the Vice President, Your Excellencies, I thank you very much on behalf of the Commission for the honour to make this presentation. And please join the Commission in solving this 25-year-old problem of Polling Units in Nigeria.
May God bless the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
Being the presentation made by Prof Mahmoud Yakubu, Chairman INEC at the National Economic Council(NEC) held at the Presidential Villa, Abuja on February 18, 2021.