There is urgent need for more voters’ education

In the wake of the nationwide outrage that greeted what transpired at the recent Kano State Local Government election, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), last week, constituted an investigative panel to probe complaints of underage voters in its register. According to INEC chairman, Professor Mahmood Yakubu, the eight-man panel would ascertain if the voter register requested by the Kano State Independent Electoral Commission (KNSIEC) was actually used during the election. It will also investigate widespread report of brazen violations of the electoral law as voters below the statutory age of 18 years allegedly freely participated in the poll.

Nothing less is expected on such a sensitive issue that can impugn the credibility of the electoral process and indeed put our democracy in peril. Video footages that went viral in the aftermath of the Kano council election had captured children participating and thumb printing ballot papers. The All Progressives Congress (APC), which controls the state, garnered about 2.6 million votes to win overwhelmingly in all 44 local councils, a result disputed as fraudulent by the main opposition, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). But INEC also doubted whether the register it provided KNSIEC was used during the election. A statement attributed to the KNSIEC partly clarifies that suspicion. “We are not a subsidiary of INEC,” said Professor Garba Sheka, chairman of KNSIEC. “The relationship between SIEC and INEC is that of partnership, not of leader or follower.”

However, whatever may be their relationship, the Kano local election has added a sense of urgency to tackling the problem of underage voting. It is a nationwide problem, but more prevalent in the north. It particularly came into prominence during the last general election in 2015. The recent remarks by Professor Lai Olurode, former INEC Commissioner for South west between 2010 and 2015, were poignant. “I had to run for my life at one of the election centres in a part of the country because these people said children must vote or there would be no election at all. The Kano State example is a bad signal and a warning that we really have a lot to do and the voter register is key. The register must be clean,” he said, “it must not have ghost names or underage voters.”

It is thus clear that this is an issue that the authorities cannot afford to treat with levity because of its tendency to compromise the outcome of elections. Fortunately, the electoral umpire is acutely aware that the credibility if any election is contingent on the credibility of the voter register. Section 12 (1) of the Electoral Act clearly defines who is eligible as a voter. These are citizenship, residence and the attainment of the mandatory age of 18 years. During a workshop on Election Project Plan Implementation in Lagos last week, Yakubu vowed to clean and sanitise the voter register in all 1446 centres across the country and conduct the election which is due in 2019 in accordance with the best global professional standards.

In order to achieve this objective, INEC and other stakeholders should also ensure that forthwith, deliberate actions are taken to protect officials during the registration of voters just as it is done during the voting process. Reports are rife that many minors were registered because of threats to registration officers by many communities. But a more enduring solution lies in voters’ education and in securing the buy-in of community leaders and opinion moulders to drum to all that underage voting undermines the integrity of the electoral process.

There is no better time to clean up the voter register than now!