Dr Muiz Banire SAN
The significance of registration as a voter in Nigeria cannot be underscored. Beyond the conferment of eligibility to participate in the voting exercise on the day of the election, it is crucial that it is undertaken to forestall unlawful voting by ‘proxy’ associated with the practice of the political class. The more the eligible voters fail to register as voters in the country, the better for the political class who exploit the situation to perpetrate all manner of political fraud. The more gaps in the number of eligible voters who fail to register, the bigger the rigging infrastructure available to the political class. It is a notorious fact that rigging of any election starts with registration. For the above reasons, therefore, it is imperative that eligible voters ensure that they register and collect their permanent voters’ cards (PVC).
As we are all aware, the Electoral Act, 2022, is the extant law regulating the conduct of elections in Nigeria. It is the law that regulates the process of registration as a voter. As intense as the debate leading to the enactment of the act was, it is baffling that the content is largely foreign to most Nigerians, particularly the major stakeholders, which include the political parties. Due to this pervasive ignorance, the United Action for Change, a movement that I belong to, recently conducted a roundtable in which the provisions, particularly the new and novel provisions contained therein, were interrogated and exposed. The discussion, led by no less a personality than our comrade, simply a man of distinction and honour, the Akwa Ibom resident electoral commissioner, Comrade Mike Ighini, and moderated by my humble self, was not only informative but truly illuminating. There is so much to expose in the act but, certainly, space constraints will not permit. To this end, therefore, I shall periodically be making some interventions in different areas of interest. It is in this connection that I shall, in this column, deal essentially with the issues arising from registration as a voter.
By way of introduction, let me state that those who undertake the registration of eligible voters must be staff of the Independent National Electoral Commission (the Commission), permanent or ad hoc. The members of the Commission must, however, be non-partisan and must not, under any guise, be members of any political party. To avert the creeping of politicians into the Commission, the law not only prohibits appointment of politicians but also provides sanctions for those who, through misrepresentation, non-disclosure of membership, affiliation or connection to any political party, unscrupulously secured appointment into the Commission. I know that the violation of this provision is rampant among politicians, hence the need for those potential violators to bear in mind that the penalties range from a fine of N5 million to imprisonment for a term of not more than two years or both. As remarked above, politicians, most times in connivance with electoral officers, particularly at the local government level, often populate the ad hoc staff list with their members. Regrettably, these are staff who would conduct the registration of potential voters. No wonder, therefore, that the exercise is mostly fraught with all manner of irregularities, ranging from registration of deceased people to registering unqualified voters and even inanimate objects in the past before the introduction of biometrics. Beyond the above, the staff so appointed for the purpose of registration of voters are equally mandated to take oath of neutrality and not to accept bribe or gratification in the exercise of their functions. This is imperative and must be ensured. Oftentimes, this mandatory requirement is circumvented. Now, to qualify for registration as a voter, an applicant must be a Nigerian. To what extent this is complied with is debatable as allegations of non-Nigerians registering as voters are rife in the country. Although no region of the country is exempt in this regard, it is more pronounced in the northern part of the country where the border is porous and the identity of non-Nigerians difficult to unveil.
In the process, we have non-Nigerians registered to vote in contravention of this law and who actually do vote. This is where the service of the Nigerian Immigration Service is required in the electoral process. The Immigration Service needs to be alive to its responsibility in this regard and work along with the Commission in the registration exercise in order to detect non-Nigerians attempting to register and/or actually registering.
Further to the foregoing, an applicant is required to have attained the age of 18 years and above. A lot of manipulations occur here also as there is no exhaustive means of ascertaining the age of applicants, except through credible adverse report from those with such information. It is in this context that stakeholders with such information must assist the system by furnishing same to the registration officers. The display period equally avails us the opportunity to object to such underage registered voters. This is part of the way of ensuring the integrity of the register. The third eligibility requirement is that such applicant must be ordinarily resident or working in the registration area he is applying into, or he originates from the local government or ward.
This implies that the applicant must not be a stranger to the area in question, as voting presupposes that you are a stakeholder in the area. Fulfilling all the above requirements is a means to an end and not an end in itself. In other words, you may qualify or be eligible to register but if you fail to present yourself to the registration officer for registration you cannot be registered and eligible to vote. Thus, you must present yourself to register.
This is talking to my friends in the social media who are eligible but yet to register. The last aspect of interest is that you must not be otherwise legally disabled from registering to vote. Because the law itself envisages the compromise of this process, the act mandates the display of the electoral register prior to the conduct of the election. Failure to carry out the display is equally punishable under the act. During the display of the register, both on the Commission’s website and in the registration area, members of the public can raise objections to the existence of any fictitious name on the register, or the exclusion of any registered name. This is more of a filtration process expected to generate a credible electoral register prior to the conduct of elections. It is, therefore, important that members of the public, particularly stakeholders, must sacrifice time to monitor the display exercise. This is a critical stage of the electoral process in which political gimmicks and maneuvering of politicians can be tamed.
The often loaded register by politicians is capable of being purged at this stage. Secondly, this is the stage in which you can ascertain your name on the register and the location of your polling units. Let me warn that registered names often get missing, or deliberately scattered in a haphazard manner to frustrate potential voters. The strategy is adopted by politicians in areas where their opponents are strong. So, it is important that you are alert and vigilant during this period of register display. Failure to display the register as mandated by the act attracts sanctions of not less than N100,000 or a six-month imprisonment or both. Primarily, the revision officers deal with the objections submitted but, where an objector is dissatisfied with the decision of the revision officer, an appeal can be made to the resident electoral commissioner whose decision is said to be final. However, in view of the reality that not all the resident electoral commissioners are above board, I will suggest an escalation of the discontent to the national chairman of the Commission. With favourable satisfaction of the above eligibility requirements, the Commission is empowered to issue you a voter’s card in evidence of the completion of the registration to the registered voter. While the act forbids the collection of double or more voter’s cards and penalises same with a fine of N500,000 or imprisonment for a term of a year or both, the sanction for multiple registration is N100,000 fine. The question is, what distinguishes double or multiple registrations from the possession of double or multiple voters’ cards? If anything, the former is more grievous and should command equal, if not higher sanction. Multiple registration is an offence under the Act and as such, you must desist in engaging in same. I am of the view that for the severity of this offence of double or multiple registration, the fine is too meagre to deter anyone. However, for whatever it is worth, where we notice any such aberration by way of knowledge, let us raise the objection. An area that over time has been agitating a lot of registered voters is where they relocate to another part of the country and they are interested in voting.
The Act permits the transfer of your registration to your new place of abode either by way of residency or work. However, this must be not later than 90 days to the election day. All that you require is an application to the Resident Electoral Commission of your new area, accompanied by a copy of your extant voter’s card. Upon the effect of the transfer, a new voter’s card will be issued to you whilst the old one is retrieved. So, it is no excuse that you move from a part of the country to another not to vote. To further enable transparency in the electoral process, any person or political party can apply for a certified true copy of the electoral register and must be obliged upon payment of determined fees by the Commission. This area of fee payment is already being abused as the Commission demands outrageous sums to frustrate applicants for such information.
I recall the attempt by the United Action for Change to apply for the register for the purpose of education and enlightenment of the public, and the Commission demanded a sum in excess of seven million naira from the volunteer organization that was out to aid the Commission in the enlightenment program. The issue of fee payment now constitutes an impediment and it is hoped this will be revisited. Finally, should a registered voter lose the card, or get it defaced, mutilated or destroyed, torn or otherwise damaged, the holder may apply for the replacement upon satisfying the Electoral Officer as to the circumstances leading to the tampering. The request must, however, not be later than 90 days prior to the election day. What baffles me by way of conclusion is the provision vesting the proprietary interest in the card in the Commission. The implication of this is that the Commission can withdraw same at pleasure as there are no guidance in the Act on this. The constitutionality of this is yet to be tested as the derogation provision cannot accommodate deprivation of a citizen of the franchise. As a note of warning to those who engage in it, possession of another person’s voter’s card, selling or offering to sell, purchasing or offering to purchase, or any such attempt to do any of the foregoing under the Act is an offence.
The penalty here is the sum of five hundred thousand naira or not more than two years imprisonment or both. To be forewarned, is to be forearmed. This is an enlightenment series, more of which shall come in other areas prior to the conduct of the general elections in 2023.
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