Underage voting is a major controversy likely to rear its ugly head in the 2019 elections, writes Shola Oyeyipo
The Electoral Act No 6 of 2010 section 12.( I)A, states that â€œA person shall be qualified to be registered as a voter if such a person (a) is a citizen of Nigeria; (b) has attained the age of 18 years. It therefore constitutes an electoral offence, when anyone younger than 18 years votes in an election. Ironically, persons far younger than the stipulated voting age were reported to have voted in parts of the country.
This is happening at a time when issues relating to election rigging are becoming more worrisome, because various shades of election manipulations have thrown up funny leaders against the wishes of the electorate and the consequences have been dire.
Underage voting, said to be common in the North, particularly Kano State, has become a menace and the reason is because child-voters are only acting within the whims and caprice of some nefarious adults, who will ultimately influence where they cast their votes. Hence, it cannot be swept under the carpet.
Certain pictures and video clips had gone viral showing cases of underage voting reported in northern Nigeria during elections. It was however more rampant during the 2015 presidential election. Some children were also spotted participating in the recent local government elections in Kano State. The children were registered as eligible voters and urged to vote for a popular candidate in the area.
Though the Kano State Commissioner of Information, Alhaji Muhammad Garba, maintained that the exercise depicting the illegality was not conducted by the Kano State Independent Electoral Commission (KANSIEC), it has remained a blame game ever since.
â€œWhat you have seen in the video clip showing underage kids voting did not happen now. It was recorded during the last 30 March 2015 elections. Mischievous persons were behind the spreading of the clips but were missing out in the whole game, because what was there in the video happened in 2015,â€ Garba said.
The situation is, however, not limited to Kano State. The practice has spread to other parts of the North. For instance, miffed by the ugly trend of underage voters, the Plateau State Resident Electoral Commissioner (REC) of INEC, Dr. Godwin Kwanga, while addressing Stakeholdersâ€™ Forum in Jos ahead of a re-run election in February, complained that the state was replete with underage voters in possession of Permanent Voter Cards (PVCs).
This position was corroborated by Pan-Yoruba socio-political organisation, Afenifere, when its National Publicity Secretary, Yinka Odumakin, who alleged that INEC and its immediate past chairman, Prof. Attahiru Jega are responsible for the rampant cases of underage voters prevalent in the Northern.
Afenifere further alleged that in the build-up to the 2015 general election, whereas INEC under Jega, distributed the Permanent Votersâ€™ Cards (PVCs) to individuals in the Southern part of the country, it handed them over to Emirs in the North, who in turn distributed them to everyone in their locality, including children.
â€œIt is a shame on INEC that we agreed as a nation that the voting age is 18 yet we saw all those babies holding PVCs in the North. They did it during the 2015 election and I am putting the blame on INEC, because no state registers voters in Nigeria; it is the responsibility of INEC. How did those votersâ€™ cards get into the hands of those children?â€Ž
â€œWe cannot have different nations in a country. If we agreed that the required age for voting under the law is 18, then that law should apply to every parts of the country and those violating it should be sanctioned. We must put a stop to this before the next election,â€ Afenifere said.
Following the allegation, INEC immediately set up a committee to investigate the issue of underage registration and voting in Kano State and absolved itself of any wrongdoing. It maintained that votersâ€™ register which should have been used for the Kano polls did not contain underage voters.
But shedding light on the matter during a programme on the African Independent Television (AIT), â€˜Kakaaki,â€™ the INEC Director of Publicity and Voter Education, Mr. Oluwole Osaze-Uzzi, admitted that members of the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) taking part in the registration exercise were forced by members of the community to register children and that their lives were threatened when they refused to comply.
In fact, it was gathered that some parents allegedly came along to the registration units with their children insisting that they were over 18 and subsequently forcing registration officers to register underage children.
Osaze-Uzzi said: â€œI agree that it is the responsibility of the registration officer to do that (refuse to register underage persons), but there are times that circumstances are such that where there is present and clear danger that he risks being assaulted or being killed, I think it will be unreasonable to expect him not to succumb to the pressure. But we encourage them to report immediately they get out of that dangerous zone.â€
From its body language, INEC is not comfortable with the phenomenon of underage voters. The committee headed by Mr. Ahmed Nahuche, which INEC set up to investigate the allegations of underage voting that trailed the local government elections conducted by KANSIEC, while presenting the report to INEC Chairman, Prof. Mahmood Yakubu, advised that the State Independent Electoral Commissions and political parties needed to be encouraged to work towards improving electoral logistics to enhance the credibility of their respective processes and procedures and that political parties should observe best practices for the sustenance of democracy.
Yakubu too is not oblivious of the fact that the credibility of the voter register is very important to the outcome of an election. Hence, he assured Nigerians that INEC would ensure that the voter register was purged of ineligible persons.
According to Osaze-Uzzi, mechanisms had been put in place such that after an underage person is registered, he could be removed from the register. He also assured that the registers were usually inspected by senior INEC officials, who could identify underage persons through their facial looks or through assistance from members of the community.
â€œIt is not a complex process, you display the voter register and people come there. That is in addition to the fact that the registration officer can refuse anybody registration. But we donâ€™t expect people to risk their lives for what is essentially a simple patriotic service.
â€œBut if they get away with that (getting registered) and the report is not taken, the second opportunity is when the register is displayed. The best opportunity is where higher officials physically look at each register as much as they can and those who are clearly not qualified are removed. So, it is a three-pronged process and there are different stages,â€ Osaze-Uzzi said.
Another option as suggested by the Plateau State REC, Kwanga, is that underage voters should be made to face the full wrath of the law to serve as a deterrent to others.
However, where no concrete steps are taken to address the malaise, irrespective of efforts to improve the electoral system, elections will continue to lack credibility and the outcome will likely not reflect the aspirations of the electorate.