The supposedly Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) has ended the registration of (new) voters despite the fact that there were hundreds and thousands of would-be or intending voters trooping into and milling around voter registration centres or points all over the country. We saw pictures of agitated Nigerians struggling to get registered. Many slept at the registration centres. Others got there very early in the morning and left late in the night, doing that day-in day-out. Yet, they failed to get their names on the voters’ register.
I experienced the INEC shenanigans at its Agege office in Lagos where prospective voters were directed to come as early as 4 am to register and then return by 8 am to start the waiting, pushing and shoving battle! And no matter how early one got there, there were close to 50 names already on the make-shift register! And only 70 names, out of the hundreds milling around, were entertained per day!
As in many things Nigerian, officials as well as a mixture of urchins and politicians cashed in on the situation to make brisk business. Monkey business, man-know-man, which also translates into man-pass-man, became rampant at many of the registration centres. Before my very eyes at the INEC Agege office, registration machines were carted away in an SUV to an unknown destination. Feeble protests by the “suffering and smiling” hapless citizens meant nothing to the officials who must be protecting their jobs as well as feathering their nests. Party faithful assigned to the centres that I visited contested territory with INEC officials and the roughnecks who must be placated with concessions or else…
Getting registered as a voter or moving one’s voting centre from one location to the other or, still, correcting one anomaly or the other in one’s Permanent Voter’s Card (PVC) data became even more tedious than the biblical camel going through the eye of the needle. In Lagos where I live and work, you knew you were within the vicinity of an INEC registration centre when you encountered a long and riotous queue akin to those that were the order of the day at petrol filling stations whenever there was fuel scarcity. People wore long faces; brisk business by petty traders surfaced and people had to settle for whatever was available as breakfast, lunch and dinner. Of course, prices were hiked, further leaving gaping holes in the pockets of already traumatised citizens.
If you were lucky, you got registered but that in itself is no guarantee that your PVC will be out in time, or out at all, before the 2023 election – in the event there is one! For many of those that thronged the registration centres, voting was the last thing on their mind. They were registering to fulfill all righteousness because they did not know what trap the government could, in the future, set for anyone who fails to produce evidence of registration! Note that some places of worship had already started turning back anyone without a PVC! So the pressure – and blackmail – was much. But in the midst of all of that, INEC made a simple process of getting onto the voters’ register look like rocket science; something so routine and ordinary in other parts of the world. The excuse later given by INEC that it needed time to process voter’s data does not hold water. Voter registration should, and must be, a continuous exercise. It should be seamless and not the needless tug-of-war it has now been turned into.
For those who genuinely wanted to enrol so they could perform their civic duty as responsible and patriotic citizens, the hassle they went through must have puzzled them. Why should the government not be interested in its citizens being responsible and patriotic? Why the I-don’t-care-attitude, even scantily-concealed hostility, to voter registration? When the ruling party at the centre needed the same INEC to shift its announced “sacred” timetable for the party presidential primary, didn’t INEC shift the date? There must be something, then, that those in authority know about voter registration that is hidden from the ordinary folks! Note that INEC had originally wanted to stop the voter registration a month earlier but for protests and legal action by an NGO that forced its hands. Nothing suggests that INEC could still not have allowed voter registration beyond the 31 July 2022 deadline forced upon it.
Voter registration should be done on a daily basis. As someone comes of age, he or she should freely walk into an INEC office to get registered – or even do that online – and have his or her PVC printed and delivered to him by post in a jiffy, as they say; not the present practice of waiting a few months before an election before embarking on the typical Nigerian fire brigade approach of rushing to register millions of people in a few days. My suspicion is that the present awkward and perverted system serves some ulterior motives. It oils the wheel of corruption as hundreds of billions of Naira are voted for elections and voter registration is one of the justifications for these humongous sums. And INEC must be seen to be registering voters in public glare!
Now that INEC has succeeded in shutting the door in the face of would-be voters, who are the gainers and why are the critical stakeholders not complaining? Why are the political parties and politicians not kicking? Why is the government not insisting that citizens willing to perform their civic duty be allowed to do so without let or hindrance? And why are the citizens themselves not protesting against their disenfranchisement by INEC? As it is said, our PVC is our power; being denied our PVC is tantamount to our being denied the constitutionally-guaranteed right to decide who rules over us.
In their definition of disfranchisement or disenfranchisement, political scientists agree that it means the explicit or implicit revocation or denial of, or failure to grant the right to vote to a person or group of persons who are otherwise qualified to vote. INEC acts arbitrarily when it takes that right from citizens who are otherwise qualified to vote. There is no law that takes that right from citizens. INEC, in consideration of its own administrative conveniences – which it lazily does and with uncommon impunity – is the one denying citizens that all-important right. What INEC is promoting, inadvertently, is voter apathy. When the process of registration to vote becomes cumbersome and herculean as INEC has deliberately made it, the interest to participate in the political process will wane. What results is voter apathy.
Voter apathy is dangerous, especially so in a democracy or representative government. Voter apathy is generally defined by political scientists as a lack of interest among voters (and would-be voters?) in the political process, usually resulting in low turnout during elections. It means a dangerously lesser number of citizens takes interest in or participates in the political process. Where this is the case, such disinterested citizens cannot be expected to support the government by paying their taxes, obeying laws and being generally patriotic in the defence of their country. “My country, right or wrong”, does not operate in an atmosphere where political apathy is rife.
Voter turnout is the barometer that political scientists use to measure the health of a political system. Where voter turnout is impressive, it means the people have an abiding interest in the political system and are more likely to be keenly interested in the activities of the government than where voter participation is low. And how can they become voters if INEC slams the door, as it has just done, in their face? So, INEC, by its action, is not helping our democracy to grow. It is an aberration that an organization saddled with the very important assignment of nurturing democracy is the very organisation that is acting destructively of that end.
Former Deputy Editor-in-Chief of PUNCH newspapers, also Managing Director/Editor-in-Chief of The Westerner newsmagazine, Bolawole maintains columns in the Sunday Tribune and New Telegraph newspapers. He is also a public affairs analyst on radio and television. He can be reached by email on firstname.lastname@example.org and +2347052631058