The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) may have a rough ride this week, over a matter that is, in the strict sense, not its business.
After weeks of investigation, this could be the week when the Commission finally releases its findings into allegations that the Kano State Local Government election, conducted by the State Independent Electoral Commission (SIEC) using INEC’s register, was marred by underage voting.
Shortly after the election in February, the social media was rife with pictures of long lines of children purportedly voting or waiting to vote.
We’ve heard stories before, confirmed by INEC, of how palm kernels thumb-printed the ballot on voting day and the names of Mike Tyson, Nelson Mandela, Hulk Hogan and James Brown surfaced in the voter register.
Yet in this age of 3D and fake news, we have also seen desperadoes use grafted, totally irrelevant images on social media to stir up hate and division – or just simply as currency for expensive joke.
It’s gratifying that INEC decided to investigate the complaints and make its findings public.
Beyond the results of the findings and the lessons that would hopefully be learnt, however, there is the need to answer the fundamental question: how do we ensure and maintain the integrity of the voter register, arguably one of the most important public assets?
Politicians only remember the register when they are almost certain they will lose or immediately after losing. That is why the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), which won by a landslide in Kano in 2011, using the same voter register, has been the most vociferous in complaining after its defeat in 2015.
Or why the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), which thinks that it currently enjoys an advantage, appears completely indifferent in the debate about the integrity of the register. It has been sitting on copies sent to it for vetting for years now.
But malicious negligence is not an exclusive PDP or APC thing. So far as politics imitates sports, kicking the leg rather than the ball or blaming the referee when all else fails, is, well, part of the game– to those who would rather not play by the rules.
On Monday, the former Minister of Information and current National Secretary of the All Progressives Grand Alliance, Labaran Maku, called for the scrapping of all state independent electoral commissions (SIECs).
He said unless state electoral commissions are scrapped, the opposition in states will never have any hope of winning elections.
He is right, in a sense. In a recent article by Segun Adeniyi, entitled, “The amber light is on…1,” he said that from May 2015 to date, 23 states have conducted local government elections in which the incumbent party won virtually all the vacant seats.
State governors, who have the SIECs in their pockets, saw to it that their parties won by landslide. And that included Anambra where APGA, Maku’s party, won the seats in all 21 local governments!
But the story does not – and should not – end there. Maku was for many years a member of the ruling PDP. As a Minister of Information for nearly five years, he was also in the inner circle of the party at that time.
Just as it is today that SIECs are the rubberstamp of governors, that is exactly how it was when Maku was in the then ruling party. Not that I agree with him that the only way to make the SIECs work is to scrap them or pile on more job on the centre.
Changing how SIEC members are appointed, who is appointed, and the funding model, would strengthen them more than transferring incompetence to the centre. But that is a matter for another day.
The point here is that it has taken Maku’s exit from the PDP and the party’s fall from power for him to see the travesty in the current system.
For all the finger pointing that is sure to attend the release of INEC’s findings, I do hope that we do not, like Maku, wait until the shoe is on the other foot before we take responsibility for preserving the integrity of the voter register.
INEC’s dilemma often reminds me of what we used to say about our schoolteacher in the day. If we scored good grades in the exam, then it was the fruit of our hard work, completely deserved. If we didn’t, then it was what the teacher chose to give to us, regardless of our effort.
Of course we’ve been robbed too many times by politicians using staff of the electoral commission, security agencies, and the sheer power of incumbency not to care.
But what role do citizens, groups and political parties have to play in ensuring that we have a credible voter register, which is the first step to free and fair elections?
The law requires that the voter register be displayed publicly for “claims and objections” before any major election. Also, it is now possible for citizens who have registered to check their status on INEC’s portal by using their voter identification number or date of birth.
Why is it not possible to unify the multiple data systems from the driver’s licence and national identification card to the voter card into a single periodically updated register?
Unless we start to show more interest in the process and be engaged with it, politicians will always hijack the debate, leaving us to complain after the horse has left the stable. We cannot leave INEC to investigate its own register – all by itself – and then be the judge of infractions by its own staff.
Younger politicians who have thrown their hats into the ring – Omoyele Sowore, Fela Durotoye, Kingsley Moghalu, Datti Baba-Ahmed, etc. – should, apart from galvanizing their followers to register, also encourage them to take an interest in making claims and objections that will help in producing a credible voter register.
It’s shameful that the more established parties have been collecting copies of the voter register since 2011, as required by law, yet not one of them is known to have publicly challenged its content or written publicly to complain.
In 2015, for example, PDP said the results of the governorship elections in Kaduna, Katsina, Jigawa, Bauchi, Gombe, and Kano should have been cancelled because the voter register was compromised.
Yet the party had copies of the register long before the election and didn’t complain. It was, in fact, the same register (still not updated), that was used in 2011 when the PDP won by landslide in the same six states.
Just like Maku, the party became wiser when it was at the receiving end.
But the Maku Moment is a terrible thing to waste. As INEC releases the result of its findings on Kano, clear infractions must be punished. Yet, we must rescue the voter register from the vile and gratuitous bickering of partisan politicians whose goals, let’s face it, is to discard the baby with the bath water.
Ishiekwene is the Managing Director/Editor-In-Chief of The Interview and member of the board of the Global Editors Network