2023: Beam searchlight on child-voting, Nigerians task INEC

They set out for voting at dawn, move in droves; unconsciously waiting in line that stretches for a long distance, walk up to a polling booth, obtain a ballot paper, and make their choice by voting on the ballot despite not constitutionally recognised under the voting age.

This has been the practice in some parts of the country, and the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) has appeared incapable of halting the unconstitutional act.

No doubt, young people have a strong interest in Nigeria’s future but the country’s constitution and Electoral Act say a citizen must attain the age of 18 before he or she can exercise his or her franchise, and anyone who goes contrary to the provision falls afoul of the law because such actions undermine the power of the ballot box, which is the most regular way in which the citizenry engages in the political process.

Reports have shown that thuggery, vote buying, faulty card readers as well as child voting in Nigeria, especially in some northern parts of Africa’s most populous country, had, over the years, been identified as major factors fueling electoral fraud and posing serious threats to the credibility of elections.

With the upgrade to the electoral laws and as the election year fast approaches, citizens have said it was another golden opportunity for Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to demonstrate its strength, bequeath a legacy to generations yet unborn by ensuring no slip is entertained and make history in 2023 that will engender a rebuild of the nation.

Although Nigerians eagerly await to cast their votes next year on the back of the different off-cycle governorship elections supervised by INEC, which pundits ranked better than previous elections, there are concerns about obstacles impeding the electoral processes and the strategies that will be deployed to counter these issues.

Against the backdrop of the recent assurance made by the electoral body that the commission was determined to conduct the best election ever in 2023, political watchers say unless INEC beats the menace of child-voting, among other challenges, these factors will continue to be a bottleneck to the strengthening of the integrity of the electoral process.

Mahmood Yakubu, chairman of INEC, had recently given the assurance while addressing a delegation from the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute on the assessment of the preparation for the 2023 general election at the commission’s headquarters in Abuja.

“Thank you very much for all the kind words you have said about Osun. We are encouraged but there is still a lot of work to do, and we assure you that we will continue to work not only hard but even harder to deliver the 2023 general election.

“But as for the preparation for the 2023 general election, I want to assure you that we promised Nigerians that Ekiti was going to be good and Ekiti was a good election. We promised that Osun was going to be better, Osun was a better election. We are promising that the 2023 general election will be our best election ever and we are committed to delivering the best election ever,” Yakubu said.

Osazee Edigin, a human rights activist and coordinator of Action for Socio-political and Economic Change (ASEC), opined that there are noticeable enhancements in the electoral process but INEC officials need to put on their thinking caps to stamp out illegal interferences in elections because Nigerians are gradually regaining confidence in the nation’s electoral arbiter.

“There are somewhat improvement in our electoral process over the years, hence incidents of ballot snatching had been replaced with vote buying, a financial inducement mechanism. The new technology deployed by INEC has also eliminated the issues of missing ballots and all whatnots.

“2023 preparation by INEC might likely build more confidence in the minds of the people. The rate politicians are taking campaigns seriously is changing because they already know and understand that the forthcoming election may not be the same as before,” Edigin said.

Recommending on how INEC can surmount the challenges of underage voting, the human rights activist said: “The electoral body needs to design a system that is integrated with the Bank Verification Number (BVN) and National Identification Number (NIN) platforms to be able to filter out such attempt to register underage voters.

“There should be a synchrony of database across national databases. For instance, when you are requested to mandatorily tender any of the following; your International passport, driver’s licence, BVN or NIN before voter’s registration, it becomes a little bit difficult for one to declare a different age from original age.”

“Child voting still remains a major issue INEC has not been able to surmount. This is prevalent in the northern part of Nigeria. Election rigging is the reason child voting is still very much in practice. We don’t see this being eradicated in the near future as it has become endemic in the northern region,” he added.

According to him, “The latest development in monitoring results online will engender confidence and reduce voters’ apathy which hitherto was as a result of lack of confidence in the process. More less privileged citizens can now have confidence to contest in elections if they feel they are popular because rigging of elections is more difficult with the innovation.

Edigin, therefore, canvassed for the adoption of electronic voting, noting that “Until we get to the point that we don’t need to go to the physical poll to be able to cast our votes, vote buying and thuggery will not be eliminated. I think the problem with this method is the consideration for the elderly and rural dwellers who might not be too familiar with the operation of new technology.”

Speaking with BusinessDay Sunday in Benin City, Bright Oniovokukor, project director, Indomitable Youths Organisation (IYO), a non-governmental organisation, called for additional means of biodata confirmation to verify ages of registrants with a view to erasing ineligible voters.

“It is rather unfortunate that it has happened even though it was denied in some quarters. The picture and video evidence have proven this beyond reasonable doubts that it happened.

“For those underage children to be on the voters’ register, it’s either their ages were falsified or someone manipulated the system that was supposed to accept only 18 years and above. Yes, it is disappointing and INEC needs to step up effort to clean up the voters’ register by removing those names whose ages are below 18 years.

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“Other means of verification can be utilised to verify the actual age of the person. Again, it’s unfortunate that our data are yet to be synchronised fully.”

On the recently conducted elections and the big tasks before INEC as regards the 2023 general election, Oniovokukor said the recent development where election results can be monitored online and the online results tallying with results declared is gradually reawakening the confidence of the people, and it can be improved on in next year’s poll.

“The 2023 elections is a special one because of the challenges – particularly insecurity, economic crisis, collapsing education system – confronting the country. Based on this, the citizens are looking forward to a leader who can take them off this quagmire.

“Considering the awareness, technology and investment that have been made, INEC is not expected to do less as far 2023 election is concerned. They can make positive or negative history, it depends on the leadership but one thing that is sure is that the people are better informed now than when the 2015 or 2019 elections were conducted. So, INEC needs to take serious note of that.

“As the system continues to improve, thuggery during elections is gradually fading away. Cases of ballot box snatching have dropped and with effective online monitoring of results, it would drop further. The form of thuggery that is common now is destabilisation of opponents’ strongholds. This, again, can be addressed if the citizens can make peace within themselves.

“Another major challenge is vote buying. Beyond giving people money in the field, there are other tactical methods in place which INEC do not have the resources to monitor. Vote buying is way beyond INEC and it lies with the citizens. All stakeholders need to play their role in addressing vote buying as INEC cannot do it alone,” he added.

David Ugolor, executive director of Africa Network for Environment and Economic Justice (ANEEJ), said the issue of child voting can be avoided if INEC is transparent in disclosing the identity of the voters’ register so that people can go there and validate it before the election.

While calling for collective efforts from every Nigerian in the enhancement of the electoral process, Ugolor, however, expressed the optimism that INEC will achieve the desired results in next year’s election.

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