By Sodiq Omolaoye, Abuja
When in 2018, photos and videos of underage voters as young as eight went viral on social media during the Kano State local council elections, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) quickly distanced itself from the election.
At the time, INEC claimed that the Kano State Independent Electoral Commission (KANSIEC) conducted the election. But Nigerians didn’t buy the excuse. They came hard on both INEC and KANSIEC since the federal electoral umpire, INEC, provided KANSIEC with the voter register used for the elections.
Even though the commission said it could not ascertain whether or not the voter register it gave the Kano SIEC was used or discarded, following the public outcry the issue generated, INEC chairman, Prof. Mahmood Yakubu, instituted a panel to investigate the matter.
The report of the fact-finding team set up by INEC dismissed the photos and video footage as products that emanated from Kenya. The Chairman of the committee, Engr. Abubakar Nahuce, who was also the INEC National Commissioner for Kano, Jigawa and Yobe, during the presentation of the report said: “All we have seen in the social media are pictures and videos that are not verifiable; some of them are not even from Nigeria, they are from Kenya elections, which people are attributing to Nigeria.”
Nothing has since happened in relation to the allegations while the contentious issue of underage voters has remained rife in the public space. However, INEC’s declaration earlier last week of its intent to arrest underage voters and their parents in the upcoming general elections reopened the debate.
BEGINNING with the advent of democracy in Nigeria’s Fourth Republic in 1999, there is hardly any election that has not been characterised by electoral offences in various forms.
Successive elections at the national, state and local council levels have been marred by irregularities with political players resorting to violence in order to outsmart one another for victory.
No doubt, electoral offences remain a major threat to credible, free and fair elections in Nigeria, as they often heighten political tension and trigger violence.
Most elections in Nigeria have been characterised by electoral offences such as the inclusion of fictitious names in the register of voters, illegal compilation of voters’ lists, underage voting, vote buying and selling, illegal possession of ballot boxes, multiple voting, and ballot box snatching, among others.
But for whatever reason(s), many of the electoral offenders have always gone unpunished. While some observers have blamed the nation’s weak justice system for poor prosecution of electoral offenders, there are arguments that INEC, as the umpire cannot be the same body to prosecute electoral offenders. Stakeholders in the electoral process, therefore, proposed the establishment of the Electoral Offences Commission, a bill they said is 14 years late and must be accorded utmost priority and urgency.
With the general elections a few weeks away, the issue of underage voters has, again, become a matter of concern to Nigerians yearning for free, fair and credible elections.
It would be recalled that after the publication of the preliminary register of voters for the 2023 elections in November last year, claims of double registration and underage voters trailed the lists. The preliminary register, containing 93,522,272 registrants, has the name, picture, date of birth and Voter Identification Number (VIN) of each registered voter.
The list was published after the Commission said it had carried out a rigorous clean up of the data using the Automated Biometric Identification System (ABIS) and deleted 2.7 million cases of double registration during the last Continuous Voter Registration (CVR).
During this period, INEC, through its spokesperson, Festus Okoye, asked Nigerians to help the commission identify underage persons on the register published on its website.
According to Okoye, the essence of the preliminary voter register is for Nigerians to make claims, raise objections and identify bio data errors.
“The essence of putting out this is for Nigerians to help the Commission further clean up the voter register. …We want people to check whether their personal particulars have been properly captured; whether there are still names of deceased persons on the register; whether there are obviously underage persons on the register so that we can correct them.
“We cannot claim, in all honesty, that the register does not have errors. If the lawmakers believe that the register should not have errors or challenges, they won’t have provided in section 19, subsection 1-3 that such a register should be displayed for people to make claims, objections or lay complaints,” he added.
While many Nigerians raised the alarm over the presence of underage persons on the list, with the recent threat by the commission that underage persons, who attempt to vote during this year’s general elections and their parents are to be arrested, observers are at a loss as to the essence of the clean-up exercise carried out by the commission.
Okoye during the live television programme said in an effort to address issues around underage registration, INEC had summoned all its officers in areas where the anomaly took place.
The 1999 Constitution and Electoral Act of 2022, provide that a person must be 18 years and above to be registered as a voter and be eligible to vote. Nigerians raised objections that photographs of some of the registrants do not match their age.
In spite of the back-and-forth, Nigerians are yet worried that there would, most likely, be underage voting in 2023, and if nothing is done about it, it may render all efforts by the Commission to conduct a credible election with technology futile.
When contacted on how the commission intended to carry out the threat, national commissioner and chairman, Information and Voter Education Committee, Festus Okoye promised to respond.
But Former INEC director of Voter Education and Publicity, Barrister Oluwole Osaze-Uzzi, while providing a legal perspective on the matter, observed that under aged persons caught trying to vote on Election Day who are up to 17 years and six months can be arrested and charged to court.
Describing the warning from INEC as a welcome development, he said even if all those that might be arrested cannot be prosecuted, some should be used to serve as example for future crime enablers.
He said: “First of all, it is an offence for someone who is not qualified to register to go and register. In that regard, they are liable to face the law.
Offenders will be tried as adults and, if convicted, would serve the penalties prescribed by law. So, technically, they can be arrested and prosecuted.
“I recalled that during the 2002 voter registration, INEC handed over a list of almost 700,000 people who have done multiple registration to the Inspector-General of Police. Though, I am not aware of follow-up action in terms of prosecution, I don’t think you can prosecute 700,000 people because the criminal justice system can certainly not absorb that much.
“However, you can use some people as example. In each state, for instance, INEC can choose a manageable number and prosecute them. So it is possible and I support the idea of getting those underage persons arrested. If their parents are found complicit, they can also be charged to court and punished if convicted.”
On why there are still cases of underage voters despite the clean up by INEC after the claims and objections, Osaze-Uzzi queried: “Are you sure Nigerians did that. We have to go to INEC to confirm how many claims and objections were made.”
Noting that many Nigerians are not usually enthusiastic when it comes to making objections during display of voter register, he maintained that no system is 100 per cent perfect.
The former INEC official said: “From my experience in the past, people are not enthusiastic about making objections. For instance, Nigerians are expected to report cases of dead persons to INEC. In cases of some prominent people, like those who died during the COVID-19, INEC can use their discretion to remove that person. This is because there is a process in removal so that the wrong persons are not removed. Some people bear similar names even within the same locality. So, INEC is always careful when doing clean up. There is no technology that tells you from the face that this person is under 18 or above 18. INEC relies on the claims and objections made by members of the public”
But chairman of Transition Monitoring Group (TMG), an election think-tank, Auwal Rafsanjani, described INEC’s threat to arrest underage voters as mere threat to put fears in the mind of anyone planning to perpetrate such crime.
Rafsanjani, who said the commission does not have the manpower to carry out threat, however, called on security agencies to focus more on arresting the crime enablers.
Rafsanjani said: “INEC may have made that statement to put fear in the minds of the underage persons and their parents, but the commission does not have the manpower to be at every place. Even the police are not enough. I think it is a mere warning to children and their parents not to allow their children to be used for any political violence.
“The point is Nigerians have discovered underage voters and INEC promised to expunge any name that is not supposed to be on the register. Now, Nigerians must be vigilant and hold INEC accountable for whatever happens. I think we should be worried, not just about the underage persons, but the credibility of the entire process.
“We should also look out for those enabling the crime. This is because when you arrest the people who commit the action and you leave out the enablers, then it doesn’t bring solutions to the problem.”
Programmes and Communications Manager, Resource Centre for Human Rights and Civic Education (CHRICED), Armsfree Ajanaku wondered how INEC could make true its threat when it already has a huge responsibility to discharge on Election Day.
He said: “If INEC is working with security agencies to do that, then it is a welcome development, because on election day, INEC will be very busy across the board in terms of accreditation, voting and ensuring that logistics is good across polling units. We are talking about conducting elections for over 80 million voters in over 170,000 polling units. That in itself is a huge responsibility.
“Also, if you consider the fact that there are security issues, which had led to the loss of materials, INEC will be working round the clock. So, it has been a very tight timeline to ensure that materials are in polling units. If the aspect of arresting underage voters is through a very smooth synergy with security agencies, then it is a welcome development, including the threat to arrest their parents. This is because most of the underage who are on the voter register never acted on their own. It is a situation in which they are being pushed by adults to do that; those adults who are pushing them should also be held accountable and made to face the full wrath of the law. This will send a clear message that any form of electoral criminality will not be tolerated and it is good for the electoral process.”
Source: The Guardian