The upsurge in youth’s participation in the recently concluded Continuous Voter Registration (CVR) is groundbreaking and historic. Never has such been observed since the country returned to a civilian administration in 1999. This informed the mixed reactions now trailing INEC’s declaration not to further extend the exercise deadline of July 31, 2022. While the Commission may be on a fair ground for its decision, it ought to device ways to sustain the momentum and enthusiasm of Nigerians to participate in elections and thereby deepen democracy in the country.
It is an understatement to describe as encouraging the response of young and not so young Nigerians to the registration exercise. Nigerian youths have evidently realised that to achieve the desired change, they must actively partake in building the nation. So, defying the torrent weather on that fateful day, they, armed with umbrellas, besieged choice registration centres of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) nationwide, determined to change the leadership narrative come rain, come shine!
Angling for a rethink on the closure, the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP), has urged INEC to extend the time to enable millions of Nigerians, who have carried out their voter registration online, the opportunity to complete the process. SEREAP submits that: “The right to vote is not merely the right to cast a ballot but also the right to be given the time and opportunity to complete the registration process so that the right can be meaningfully and effectively exercised. Closing the gates on eligible Nigerians and denying them the time and opportunity to complete their registration cannot preserve trust in the electoral process.”
It has been further argued that the exercise is resumed to accommodate young adults who clock the age of 18 years and existing registrants who intend to transfer their registration centres or those who have lost their Permanent Voter Card (PVC). Accordingly to SERAP, failing to further enlarge time would impair the right to vote in the 2023 elections and result in disparate and unfair treatment of the affected Nigerians.
On the other hand, knowing the predilection of Nigerians to wait for the last minute, some commentators noted that the CVR should not be endless, especially against the backdrop of INEC’s indication that those already captured would have to wait till about two months to the election to collect their Permanent Voter Cards (PVCs).
It is also observed that it is unrealistic for the exercise to continue in perpetuity. Surely, there must be an end to registration. In fairness, INEC made concerted efforts to make voter registration easier and more accessible. In 2017, it created an online portal for continuous voter registration not only to prospective registrants but also for registered voters who may wish to transfer their registration centre or have misplaced or defaced their PVCs. This solution allows prospective registrants to initiate the registration process online and physically complete the same at designated centres of their choice. The initiative was intended to help decongest registration centres, reduce delays, and allow prospective registrants to schedule appointments and monitor their applications from the comfort of their homes.
Furthermore, there should be a definite registration timeline to enable INEC focus on other aspects of the electoral process. The INEC usually draws up budgets for these exercises and allocates the funds based on materials, personnel needed, and according to the duration of the exercises. Whenever such exercises go beyond the time allotted, the umpire runs the risk of seeking additional funding, which may not come readily. It is equally pertinent for PVCs to be distributed to new registrants and other logistic measures put in place timely.
The arguments on either of the divide are logical and reasonable. It is simply an issue of striking a balance between the rights of eligible voters and the legal duty imposed on INEC to devise a credible electoral framework. After all, voters can only effectively exercise their franchise if the electoral process is properly implemented.
It is noteworthy however that the Commission has a period of four years to adequately prepare for any general elections. Ordinarily, further expansion of time to another one or two months should not pose any significant challenge if there is a solid in-built electoral mechanism. Therefore, shutting the door against intending electorate six months to the general elections may be perceived as denial of their right to vote.
Curiously, out of the 10,487,972 citizens that undertook pre-registration online, only 3,444,378 completed the exercise. The wide discrepancy may not be unconnected with the tedious process registrants were subjected to, disruption of the exercise by hoodlums in some centres and the communication gap between the Commission and electorate. It behooves INEC to ensure that pre-election process is hassle-free, devoid of security hitches and its Information and Voter Education Committee speedily update registrants.
Taking a leaf from Kenya’s recent presidential election, it is expedient for INEC to adopt global best practices going forward. The registration process should be both online and physical. Accordingly, the online portal should be upgraded to allow the electorate to start and complete the process digitally. Since the government already has the biometrics of Nigerians in its database, the need for physical registration should not be mandatory. Additionally, as a federation, there is absolutely no justification for having a centralised electoral commission – INEC needs to be decentralized. Each State Independent Electoral Commission (SIEC) should be responsible for the production/distribution of materials and personnel deployment for elections within its jurisdiction. This will appropriately redress the problems associated with logistics.
The universally recognised right of every person above the age of 18 to vote is important to democracy because it is based on the principle of equality. According to Oludolapo Makinde, Esq., “There is no gainsaying the fact that the right to vote encourages civic consciousness through political participation … as such, the right to vote is an indispensable right and the fulcrum upon which democracy rests.”
Given that the past seven years have, for the country, been woeful to, say the least, 2023 is expected to be a watershed in the history of the nation, for the sleeping giants are seemingly awake! Nigerian youths having obeyed the clarion call, and now willing to speak to the state of the nation; INEC should not unduly shut them out!