New polling units and the road to 2023 elections

KUNLE ODEREMI examines the distribution of new polling units across the country by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC),  concluding that the manner of distributing the new polling units is bound to have some immediate and long term implications for subsequent elections and indeed the polity generally.

 

ABOUT eight months ago, to be exact, on October 15, 2020, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) announced February 23, 2023 as date of next presidential and National Assembly elections.  That pronouncement was quite instructive and thus further raised the tempo of horse-trading in some major political circles. It revealed the rate of ongoing underground preparations for the next general election, notwithstanding the schism in certain quarters and tension arising from the wave of insecurity in parts of the country.

Eight months down the line, INEC appears to have moved to another phase in the build-up to 2023, with the formal proclamation of additional polling units to the hitherto 199,984 across the country. The unveiling of the new polling units came with the decision to resume the Continuous Voter Registration on June 28, 2021. The final register for the 2019 general election was 84,004,084 registered voters. The North-West had the highest number with  20,158,100 voters, constituting 24 per cent of the overall registered voters. The South-West came next with 16,292,212 voters (19.39 per cent), while the North-Central had 13,366,070 (15.91 per cent), and the South-South had 12,841,279 registered voters (15.29 per cent). However, the North-East region and the South-East trailed behind with 11,289,293 (13.44 per cent) and 10,057,130 voters (11.97 per cent)) respectively.

Be that as it may, the issue at the front-burner now is the creation of the new polling units. While some stakeholders see the exercise a major breakthrough for the commission for being able to break a seeming jinx, many others call for caution because of the misty political climate in the country.

The distribution of the new polling units by INEC showed that while additional 31,196 units went to the North, the South got a total of  25,676 polling units. The ratio among the states indicated that Lagos led with 4,861 PUs, trailed by Kano (3,148); Kaduna (2,910); Rivers (2424) and Plateau (2,358), as Ekiti State led from the rear with 250 new polling units. Under the new configuration, the North now has a total of 93,191 polling units, while there are 83,655 polling units in the South. The difference between the political divide is 9,536. A further analysis of the figure revealed that the polling units in the North-Central now are 27,514 as against the hitherto 15,981; North-West has risen from 29,554 to 41,671 polling units, while the North-East now has 24, 006 polling units following the addition of 7,546 new ones. On the flip side of the divide, with an additional 9,367  polling units, the South-South now has a total of 27,126 booths; the South-East moved from 15,549 polling units to 21,631, with the South-West having a total of 34, 898 as against 24, 671 polling units before now.

 

State-by-state allocation

A breakdown of the new polling units in other states apart from Lagos and Kano that got the highest allocation from the 56, 872 tally with 4,861, and 3,148 units, respectively, showed that Abia State got 1,387 polling units; Adamawa 1,495; Akwa Ibom, 1,374; Anambra 1,112; Bauchi, 1,349; Bayelsa, 440; Benue, 1,414; Borno, 1,138; Cross River, 998; Delta, 2,239; Ebonyi, 1,161; Edo, 1,892; Ekiti, 250; Enugu, 1,187; FCT 2,260; Gombe, 770; and Imo 1,235. The rest include Jigawa, 995; Kaduna, 2,910; Katsina, 1,750; Kebbi, 1,345; Kogi, 960; Kwara, 1,015; Nasarawa,1,761; Niger, 1,765; Ogun, 1,832; Ondo, 924; Osun, 753; Oyo, 1,607; Plateau, 2,358; Rivers, 2,424; Sokoto, 956; Taraba, 1,685; Yobe,1,109; and Zamfara,1,013 units.

INEC chairman, Professor Mahmood Yakubu, for the umpteenth time, shed light on the journey that culminated in the creation of the new polling units. He noted that , “Before 2010, the commission operated on a round figure of approximately 120,000 polling units. However, a census undertaken by the commission before the 2011 general election arrived at the precise figure of 119,973 polling units. The commission also made efforts to relocate many polling units from inappropriate places such as private residences and properties, palaces of traditional rulers and places of worship to public buildings accessible to voters, polling agents, observers and the media during elections.” He stated that following unsuccessful attempts to create additional polling units despite pressure from increased number of registered voters, the commission established voting points and voting point settlements nationwide as a pragmatic response to necessity. “The commission is glad to report that 25 years since the current polling units were created in 1996, the hard nut is finally and successfully cracked after several unsuccessful attempts. Nigeria now has 176,846 full-fledged polling units,” Yakubu enthused.

He said the commission successfully removed 749 polling units from inappropriate locations to appropriate public facilities or open spaces in line with INEC policy to guarantee unencumbered access to polling units for all voters. “Of the figure, he revealed that 232 removed from private units were relocated on the ground of distance, difficult terrain, congestion, communal conflict, new settlements and general insecurity. He said the whole exercise was made possible due to the cooperation of the leadership of parties, civil society organisations, the media, security agencies, religious leaders, socio-cultural associations, the labour unions, professional bodies, persons with disabilities, women and youth groups, students’ unions, the Federal Executive Council (FEC), the state governors under the auspices of the National Economic Council (NEC) and the National Assembly.

 

Putting the cart before the horse?

In his analysis of the changes, a seasoned politician and legal practitioner, Chief Supo Shonibare, expressed some reservations because of timing.  He said there were contentious issues pertaining the current federal structure that need be addressed before contemplating the exercise. “Any configuration of voting units that is unable to ensure equality in distribution between northern and southern Nigeria is not auspicious or desirable, at the moment, when suspicion and tensions on the determination of one ethnic group to dominate and subjugate others are burning issues in the polity. Devolution of powers on most contentious issues is the only anecdotal approach to assuage the pent up tensions and to begin to foster a united federal entity,” he said. According to Shonibare, INEC may have good intentions, “it is, however. not the most opportune time, when we seem not to have been able to have a consensus on the rules and morale that ought to determine these issues. A confidence-building process may be achieved by devolving the processes of enumeration of residents. There is no reason why census and arrangement for elections and the attendant logistics; including polling units delineation after a national template has been adopted, cannot be conducted by local government area and state tier. Census should be for records purposes and for planning to meet infrastructural deficit requirements.”

Shonibare also raised the question about skewed representation in the parliament at the centre, which has been a source of mutual suspicion among the constituent units of the country.  His words: “Representation at the national level should be based on equality of representatives from the northern and southern Nigeria, as those were the entities amalgamated in 1914 to form Nigeria. LGAs, states or any federating structure must be able to conduct elections and be autonomous. The federal electoral body should only be responsible for collation, enabling training, having oversight professional support assistance, including printing security watermarks on ballot papers. The federal electoral body will, of course, be responsible for organising and conducting presidential elections.”

 

Constituency delineation

The disproportionate representation in the Senate and the House impedes the building of genuine trust and confidence. It manifests in the outcry over resource allocation and distribution. The congruity in structure rooted in indiscriminate creation of federal constituencies, states and local government areas underlines the reign of injustice, lack of equity and fairness.

On March 21, the House of Representatives raised the issue of delineation of constituencies and the imperative to address the existing lopsided arrangement. It challenged the INEC to embark on the exercise to redress the current imbalance in the membership of both the Senate and the House. Honurable Ndudi Elumelu sponsored a motion calling for a review of the division of states of the federation into federal constituency. The Minority Leader wondered that the INEC had not deemed it proper to initiate the process since the birth of the Fourth Republic, an action, he claimed was tantamount to the violation of section 73(1) of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) because the present membership representation was grossly skewed against bloated federal constituencies. Elumelu argued that the constitution provided for a 10-year timeframe for constituency reviews, whereas the INEC had not done any known review in the last 22 years of the democratic dispensation. He said it was a disdain for the constitution whereby some federal constituencies were twice the size of others in both size and population.

 

General reforms

The creation of the additional polling units, some observers note, should be seen in the light of the general electoral reforms proposed by INEC. Under the proposed amendment to the Electoral Act 2010 as amended, Professor Yakubu enumerated increasing citizens’ confidence by enhancing the transparency and credibility of the electoral process; entrenching internal democracy within parties; ensuring inclusivity in the electoral process for marginalised segments of society such as women, youths and persons living with disability; reducing the cost of elections and deepening the deployment of technology in elections.

 

A giant step

The national president of Voters Awareness Initiatives and legal practitioner, Mr Wale Ogunade, believes the additional polling units constitute a positive development for the country. He sees the new structure as a likely game-changer against what he perceives as the prevalent disconnect between the people and elected public officials once they have secured the people’s mandate.  Ogunade said: “The new configuration of new polling units will give voters the opportunity to vote without stress. It not just about voting;  don’t forget that before the exercise itself, there are several activities that take place, including voter registration, display of voter register so that prospective voters can make sure their properly registered; so that they know where they can cast their votes. The latest exercise will ensure that the voting point is nearer to the place of domicile by a voter, unlike before that the polling booth is very far away from where one lives.”

Oguntade added that the country is often shut down on an election day, with no vehicular movement, making it difficult for people to vote or leading to voter apathy. He stated that the  new arrangement will make voters king because it confers an advantage on the electorate, encourage political participation, and for politicians to be on their toes, knowing full well that an election is a number game.

 

Legacy of Yar’Adua

One important legacy the late President Umaru Yar’Adua bequeathed the country was his pragmatic moves towards a holistic reform that could enhance election integrity in Nigeria. Having admitted of being the veritable beneficiary of a grossly flawed poll, he had embarked on the process of a new dawn in the nation’s electoral process, setting up the Justice Muhammed Uwais panel to look into ways of achieving a paradigm shift from the status quo ante since elections without integrity cannot confer legitimacy on the winners.  The government accepted more than 90 per cent of the Uwais’ panel recommendations, cutting across realistic measures to improve the electoral process and environment, strengthen the legal frameworks and enhance the independence of the electoral body. Part of the recommendations also sought how to improve the performance of various institutions and stakeholders in the electoral process. The Yar’Adua administration was at the verge of implementing them when the president literally became incapacitated by illness and later passed on.

 

 Worries as 2023 beckons

The issue of amendment of the Electoral Act hangs in the balance in the present political dispensation. The National Assembly appears not to be in a hurry to  address the matter, in spite of an earlier promise by the leadership, coupled with subtle pressure from other critical stakeholders and spirited moves by INEC on the matter. At the countdown to the 2019 general election, President Buhari had on three occasions withheld assent to the bill seeking amendment to the 2010 Electoral Act (as amended) by the two chambers of the National Assembly, citing drafting issues. In October 2016, the Buhari government set up the Senator Nnamani-led committee, which brought up new electoral bills (Constitution Alteration Bill (2018); Electoral Act (Amendment) Bill (2018); and the Electoral Offences Commission Bill (2018). The mandate of the committee was to review electoral environment, laws and experiences from recent elections conducted in Nigeria and made recommendations to strengthen and achieve the conduct of free and fair elections, contrary to suggestion that government should simply implement the Uwais’ report.

Due to some lapses in the nation’s electoral process, the head of the Elections and Democracy Programme at the Kofi Annan Foundation, Sebastian F. Brack, had strongly advocated an electoral reform in Nigeria. “Nigeria is the bellwether of West Africa, and even the continent. The continued success of Nigeria’s democracy is, therefore, a strategic priority for all of Africa,” he opined. Brack was among participants at a roundtable held in Abuja to reflect on the 2019 elections. The summation of the recommendations of the participants was that the Buhari government and the parliament had a real opportunity to shore up the legitimacy of the system through necessary electoral reforms because “Nigeria’s long-term stability and development depend on it.”

However, some observers, including the fiery cleric, Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah, on the occasion, said the electoral crises bedevilling the country were more that could be imagined. According to him, “The repeated electoral crises are merely symptoms of a much deeper moral crisis. As long as our politicians care more about serving themselves than serving the nation, we will not make progress.”

But Kukah believed the situation could be redeemed through quality representation:  “There are plenty of decent people in Nigeria, including in politics. By working together, we can make this country what we would like it to be. We have to keep the faith,” he had said.

But how the trend of crisis-riddled electoral process fraught with irregularities and mandate heist is redeemed remains in the bowel of time as the major stakeholders in the Nigerian project lead the critical mass of the people into the future.

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