With Continuous Voter Registration, INEC Targets More Credibility

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Nseobong Okon-Ekong writes that the impending commencement of Continuous Voter Registration by the Independent National Electoral Commission may be the first test to win stakeholders confidence towards successful conduct of national elections in 2023

Almost three years after it suspended the Continuous Voter Registration (CVR), the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) has announced its readiness to resume the exercise in about 58 days.

INEC suspended the CVR on August 31, 2018, promising to start again after the 2019 national elections. The pledge to continue the CVR in the first quarter of 2020 could not be met, largely owing to the global pandemic that forced a lockdown on many nations, including Nigeria, leading to disruption in previously scheduled activities.

The CVR is one of the contentious issues through which different stakeholders in the society are going to measure the preparedness of INEC and its Chairman, Prof. Mahmood Yakubu, who has been given an unprecedented second five-year tenure, to guarantee a free and fair national elections in 2023.

Yakubu is not unaware of these apprehensions. He addressed many of them at a recent meeting with journalists in Abuja, during which commencement of CVR was fixed for June 28.

“Recently, the Commission embarked on a nationwide engagement with Nigerians in which we raised the fundamental issue of declining voter access to Polling Units across the country. The engagement clearly demonstrated that the existing Polling Units are inadequate. They were initially designed to cater for a projected 50 million voters but presently serve over 84 million voters,” Yakubu told the media at a conference to announce the new plans.

“In addition, many of the Polling Units are inaccessible to voters, especially Persons With Disability (PWDs), and are not conducive to implementing the Commission’s election regulations, especially in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. “We are glad that most Nigerians agree with the Commission on this issue, and we have commenced a far-reaching programme of converting Voting Points and Voting Point Settlements into full-fledged Polling Units and relocating poorly situated Polling Units to better locations. The Commission needs more time to complete this exercise, so that the new Polling Units will be available for registrants to choose from during the CVR exercise,” said the INEC Chairman.

During the last voter registration in Nigeria in 2017/18, a total of 84.004 million Nigerians registered while 72.755 million collected their Permanent Voters’ Card (PVC).

Knowing how critical the CVR is to the overall conduct of a successful election, Yakubu used the opportunity to explain every other ancillary electoral activity. After all, no other electoral umpire in Nigeria’s political history has been given the privilege to play such a crucial role twice! For the better part of his tenure, Yakubu’s strategy could be abridged in a particular fashion. Like a sports coach who has found a winning formula, he has stuck to the notion that subsidiary activities leading up to the main event (polling and announcement of results) are most crucial. In many instances, Yakubu demonstrates serious commitment to proper handling of the various processes in the electoral chain. One of the areas that he has scored high marks is engagement with all stakeholders in the electoral eco-system. One thing that everybody readily agrees is that communication has vastly improved since Yakubu became INEC Chairman. Transparency has become an important commodity and this can be measured in the negligible number of INEC-declared results that were upturned by the courts, even at that, the fault is frequently placed at the feet of the political parties who fail to carry out foolproof selection of their candidates.

Yakubu’s willingness to work with all concerned parties in the electoral system places a burden on him to explain innovation or change. Sometimes, the engagements are repetitive, long and laborious, but he takes his time like a man who understands the weight of his responsibility and seeks, as much as possible, to discharge himself equitably and remain on the right side of history.

Although, the COVID-19 pandemic was (and is still) a sufficient reason to cancel many items off the planned agenda of organizations, Yakubu would go deeper to seek stakeholders’ indulgence. He explained, “The CVR,” he said, “could not recommence in 2020 due largely to the COVID-19 pandemic.” For those who sought to put his back against the wall for conducting elections, while failing to hold the CVR. He made it clear that he could not go against the advice by health officials regarding events involving large groups of people. He said it was auspicious to focus mainly on elections proper to avoid constitutional crisis connected with end of tenure.

“In the light of the prevailing circumstances, the Commission promised the nation that it would recommence the CVR in the first quarter of 2021. Our thinking at the time was that at the turn of the new year, we would have completed all outstanding off-season governorship elections and that the pandemic would have eased. We also needed time to put in place new systems that would facilitate safer registration of voters, should the pandemic persist. The first quarter of 2021 ended and obviously the Commission was unable to restart the CVR exercise. It is, therefore, in line with our long-standing pledge to carry Nigerians along in all our activities and to make them aware of any challenge in the discharge of our functions, that the Commission has called this Press Conference,” Yakubu stated.

Perhaps, he should have added also that he needed the comfort of his re-appointment by President Muhammadu Buhari and the confirmation by federal legislators.

With a couple of crucial by-elections across the country, successfully concluded, this year, Yakubu is understandably visiting the CVR and ancillary issues with more urgency. Of course, the CVR Press Conference addressed issues far beyond the immediate concern of CVR. The INEC Chairman used the opportunity to mention other critical activities to be accomplished within the following timelines leading to the recommencement of the exercise: Expansion of voter access to Polling Units – 11th May 2021; building and testing the online registration Portal – 15th May 2021; the arrival of the new generation of registration devices – the IVED – 31st May 2021; recruitment and training of Voter Enrolment Staff – 14th June 202 and restart of CVR – 28th June 2021. He said, “Effective from Monday 28th June, 2021, the CVR exercise will commence nationwide and carried out continuously for over one year until the third quarter of 2022.”

In line with the practice since INEC came under his watch, Yakubu uses a sample population to test his theories. In this case, “emphasis,” he said, “will initially be on Anambra State where more centres will be established in view of the governorship election already scheduled for Saturday 6th November 2021.” He explained further, “In order to complete preparations for the governorship election, the CVR exercise in the state will be temporarily suspended in August 2021. This will enable the Commission to clean up the data for the state and print the PVCs for registrants.”

Under Yakubu, INEC has made visible improvement on its performances. With each election, there is always a heartwarming novelty that reduces the chances for fraud and increases the trust of voters in the system. During the most recent governorship elections in Edo and Ondo states, last year, INEC was commended by many stakeholders, across board. For the first time, results were posted directly from polling units to its server, making it accessible to the electorate. This development conferred credibility on the elections results.

The first in the series of consultations with stakeholders to provide more details on the CVR exercise, particularly the innovations that will ensure a safe and stress-free experience for registrants will hold after the Easter break.

Youth Initiative for Advocacy, Growth and Advancement (YIAGA) Africa, a leading election monitoring group, whose goal is to build democratic societies anchored on the principles of inclusion, justice and accountability led by its Executive Director, Mr. Solomon Itodo may be set to deploy its Watching The Vote (WTV) election observation methodology during the CVR exercise like it did in 2017. The Yiaga observation mission is geared towards enhancing the credibility and transparency of the voter registration process.

According to Itodo, ”It will also generate data and knowledge for influencing electoral policy formulation and implementation in the buildup to the general election.” YIAGA’s #WatchingTheVote is an advanced observation methodology that uses well-established statistical principles and sophisticated information technology for reporting and assessment of electoral activities. Using this methodology, YIAGA says it will provide the most timely and accurate information on the conduct of the CVR, PVC distribution and transfer of registered voters.

Yakubu has approached his assignment with amazing enthusiasm, always willing to explain, what he is doing or why he could not proceed with a certain decision. For instance, he shed light on the delayed commencement of CVR. “There are three cardinal reasons why the exercise could not start earlier. The first is the establishment of new systems that would ensure safer CVR exercise in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. In this regard, the Commission is building a new online registration portal that would enable new registrants to commence registration online and subsequently complete the capture of their biometric data at designated registration centres. This is designed to reduce crowding. Through the online portal, they can schedule their visits to the registration centres to suit their convenience. Above all, a CVR Locator is integrated into the new portal which will enable online registrants to locate the nearest registration centre available to them complete their registration. Previously, registered voters who wished to transfer their voting locations, apply for replacement of their PVCs or correct their personal information had to appear physically at the registration centres. The development of this portal, which is being done in-house by our engineers, has taken a little more time to complete than the Commission anticipated.

“The second reason is the Commission’s determination to expand voter access to Polling Units. In addition, many of the Polling Units are inaccessible to voters, especially Persons With Disability (PWDs), and are not conducive to implementing the Commission’s election regulations, especially in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. We are glad that most Nigerians agree with the Commission on this issue, and we have commenced a far-reaching programme of converting Voting Points and Voting Point Settlements into full-fledged Polling Units and relocating poorly situated Polling Units to better locations. The Commission needs more time to complete this exercise, so that the new Polling Units will be available for registrants to choose from during the CVR exercise.

“Thirdly, the Commission has decided to introduce a new voter registration equipment and technology. The present generation of voter registration equipment, which the Commission introduced in 2011, is the Direct Data Capture Machine (DDCM). This is based on a laptop and a series of peripherals connected to it. In addition, it includes large power packs to power the laptops in the field. While the DDCMs have served the Commission well over the last 10 years, we believe that there are now more compact registration devices that will better serve Nigerians during the CVR exercise. The Commission is therefore migrating to the INEC Voter Enrolment Device (IVED), which is based on an Android tablet. The procurement of the new devices, the modification of the registration software by our in-house engineers to make it compatible with the Android Operating System, as well as integrating these with the online registration portal require a little more time. For instance, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, our partners abroad who manufacture the IVED hardware, are not operating at full capacity and the pandemic has also made the supply chain and delivery much slower,” he stated.

However, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) has advised INEC to stop interrupting the CVR.

PDP Publicity Secretary in Lagos State, Taofik Gani, told the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) that it was “embarrassing” that the process “is always announced as if it has intervals. That should not be; it should be a continuous and uninterrupted registration exercise.”

Gani told INEC to let Nigerians know if they are facing logistics constraints. “Why should they say continuous voter registration while it is not really continuous?’’ he asked.

The spokesman said announcing the start and the end of the exercise was contrary to its aim of continuity. PDP noted that if not for the time frame, many more Nigerians would have registered. The opposition political party called for free and fair general elections that would reflect the will of the people in 2023.

Continuous Voter Registration (CVR) is an exercise meant for the registration of citizens who turned 18 years of age after the last registration exercise; or those who for one reason or another could not register in the previous exercises.

The 2010 Electoral Act (as amended) mandates the Commission to carry out CVR nationwide and to make available to every political party within 60 days, after each year, the names of the addresses of each person registered during that year.

In pursuance of this requirement, the Commission has developed the modality for the conduct of the Continuous Voter Registration (CVR) exercise nationwide.

The Continuous Voter Registration shall be carried out in the Local Government Area offices or at such other locations within the Local Government Areas as may be designated by the Commission. The list of such centres for the CVR Exercise shall be publicized in the Local Government Areas.

The Preliminary Register of Voters (PRV) shall be displayed for public scrutiny at registration Centres at the end of every quarter before printing of PVCs. The Registration Area Officers (RAOs) will print the list of registered voters for the quarter and display same at the Registration Centres for seven days. The register shall be clearly marked Preliminary Register of Voters.

Meanwhile, INEC has cleared the air on the assumption in some quarters that the National Identification Number (NIN) may be necessary for voter registration, stating emphatically that NIN is not mandatory for voter registration.

Yakubu said that NIN was only a means of identification for registration as listed in the Electoral Act. “I want to make this important clarification. NIN is not going to be made mandatory for voter registration.

“This is for a simple reason that we are operating on basis of law establishing INEC.

“Section 10 of the Electoral Act lists identifications to be presented by prospective registrants for the purpose of voter registration to includes birth certificate, national passport, national identity card,” he said.

The INEC chairman said the list also included driver’s licence or any other document that would prove the identity and age of the applicant.

He said that the NIN card was only one of the means of identification provided for, under section 10 sub-section 2 of the electoral act.

“We cannot single that out and make it mandatory. All the other requirements are requirements of the law and we must apply the law appropriately.

“If you have your national ID card we will register you on presentation of the card, but we will not make it a mandatory means of identification for the exercise.

“Since the law, the electoral act does not make it mandatory, it is only one of the many means of identification required,” Yakubu said. On COVID-19 pandemic, he said that 1,000 registration centres had been added to the existing 1,446 for the exercise to reach as many people as possible.

The Continuous Voter Registration (CVR) exercise is expected to gulp a sum of N1billion.

QUICK FACTS:

*The Independent National Electoral Commission has announced its readiness to resume Continuous Voter Registration from June 28, 2921

* Continuous Voter Registration (CVR) is an exercise meant for the registration of citizens who turned 18 years of age after the last registration exercise; or those who for one reason or another could not register in the previous exercises

* The 2010 Electoral Act (as amended) mandates the Commission to carry out CVR nationwide

*The CVR exercise will be carried out continuously for over one year until the third quarter of 2022

*The National Identification Number (NIN) is not going to be made mandatory for voter registration

*The CVR was suspended on August 31, 2018, while INEC promised to start it again after the 2019 national elections

*Other critical activities to be accomplished within the following timelines leading to the recommencement of the exercise: Expansion of voter access to Polling Units – 11th May 2021; building and testing the Online Registration Portal – 15th May 2021; the arrival of the new generation of registration devices – the IVED – 31st May 2021; recruitment and training of Voter Enrolment Staff – 14th June 202 and restart of CVR – 28th June 2021

*The CVR exercise will concentrate on Anambra State where more centres will be established in view of the governorship election already scheduled for Saturday 6th November 2021

*In order to complete preparations for the Anambra governorship election, the CVR exercise in the state will be temporarily suspended in August 2021

*The pledge to continue the CVR in the first quarter of 2020 could not be met, largely owing to the global pandemic that forced a lockdown on many nations, including Nigeria, leading to disruption in many previously scheduled activities

*Nigeria currently has over 84 million voters, while 72.755 million collected their Permanent Voters’ Card

*In order to reduce crowding, INEC is establishing new systems that would ensure safer CVR exercise in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. In this regard, the Commission is building a new online registration portal that would enable new registrants to commence registration online and subsequently complete the capture of their biometric data at designated registration centres

*A CVR Locator is integrated into the new portal which will enable online registrants to locate the nearest registration centre available to them complete their registration

*Previously, registered voters who wished to transfer their voting locations, apply for replacement of their PVCs or correct their personal information had to appear physically at the registration centres

*Converting Voting Points and Voting Point Settlements into full-fledged Polling Units and relocating poorly situated Polling Units to better locations, so that the new Polling Units will be available for registrants to choose from during the CVR exercise

*The Commission has decided to introduce a new voter registration equipment and technology to replace the present generation of Direct Data Capture Machine (DDCM), which the Commission introduced in 2011

*The DDCMs have served the Commission well over the last 10 years. There are now more compact registration devices that will better serve Nigerians during the CVR exercise. The Commission is therefore migrating to the INEC Voter Enrolment Device (IVED), which is based on an Android tablet

*1,000 registration centres have been added to the existing 1,446 for the exercise to reach as many people as possible.

*The Continuous Voter Registration (CVR) exercise is expected to gulp a sum of N1billion