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WHEN GHOSTS VOTE; THE VOTERS’ REGISTER AND CREDIBLE ELECTIONS-BY DAKUKU PETERSIDE

WHEN GHOSTS VOTE; THE VOTERS’ REGISTER AND CREDIBLE ELECTIONS-BY DAKUKU PETERSIDE

There is some optimism, founded or unfounded, that Nigeria will be witnessing credible elections in 2023. This air of optimism is hinged on many factors, including the recently signed Electoral Act Amendment Bill, with clauses that will ensure that votes count and there is the electronic transmission of results. Even though this amendment was not in place then, the deployment of technology in the electoral process ensured a free and fair election in the November 2021 governorship election in Anambra State. This is not the first time we have witnessed this level of optimism, and Nigerians are said to be among the most optimistic people on earth. However, it appears the optimism this time is founded on solid grounds. The electoral reforms seem real, tangible, and credible. The mood in the country is such that there are high expectations that our democracy is deepening to the extent that we are getting closer to having a free and fair general elections.

However, this optimism is tainted by the reality that Nigerian politicians have always found a way of circumventing the electoral system through the instrumentality of manipulation. An optimist assumes that election rigging is surreptitious, accidental, opportunistic, and circumstantial. He further assumes that although there may be some semi-level planning and execution of electoral malpractice, most rigging is operational and procedural. However, recent events have shown that this view may be overly optimistic and jaundiced. The reality is that election rigging is more structural, heavily articulated and orchestrated than we ever think it is. As a case study, we will critically examine one structural factor that may undermine the “freeness and fairness” of the 2023 general elections.

Registering voters may seem like the most mundane task in the electoral process. It is a simple task that involves registering all eligible voters on the voters’ register, which acts as the basis for confirming voters during the conduct of elections. Getting this task right is fundamental to free and fair elections. However, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) recently revealed that 44.6 per cent of voters registered in the ongoing continuous voters registration exercise is either “ghost” or invalid voters. INEC further posits that this is as high as 60 per cent in some states. This is also reflective of the true state of the existing voters’ register used for previous elections. There is no denying the fact that the existing voters’ register is riddled with cases of double or multiple registrations, underaged persons, a high number of dead persons, inaccurate assignment of polling booths, and deletion of names of eligible voters. These scenario pictures are mindboggling, and beggar belief.

The issue of the voters’ register is not just peculiar to Nigeria. In most developing countries, voters’ register irregularities and manipulations have affected their democratic elections and outcomes. In Ghana, the case of an irregular voters’ register reached the supreme court and forced a judicial settlement of an electoral issue, which often affects the legitimacy of the outcome of elections. In India’s recent elections, the names of an estimated 120 million eligible voters were missing from the voters’ register. Furthermore, most of the victims were women and people from minority ethnic groups, which suggested that it was deliberate and targeted. In the Gambia, the challenge was the high number of dead persons on the voters’ register. In Guinea, recently, there was an inflation in the number of people in the voters’ register who come from specific districts to favour the ruling party. The list goes on.

Winning or losing elections can structurally depend on the content of the voters’ register and how it is used during elections. Politicians know this, and they have started to influence the voters’ register to reflect their intended outcomes. There are hypothetically a few ways that the voters’ register can become a weapon of the structural rigging of elections.

The most obvious is that the more the number of voters in the voters’ register from a particular area, the more likely a higher number of votes from that area. Little wonder politicians in some areas influence the registration of “ghosts“, ineligible, and sometimes under-aged people in the register. Political actors also try to get people supporting them or their parties to register en masse, whilst suppressing the registration of voters from opposition strongholds. The impact of 60 per cent invalid or “ghost” voters on the forthcoming elections can only be imagined.

There are two main reasons for the interest of politicians in manipulating the voters’ register. Other than their apparent desperation to win elections at all costs, politicians negotiate political power and advantages on the bases of the voting strength of their constituencies. The higher the number of voters on the voters’ register in a constituency, the more the bargaining power that a politican has on the power-sharing table. The second and more pungent reason for manipulating the voters’ register is that politicians rig elections by writing the results, which often does not reflect the actual voting done during elections. The voters’ register becomes a limitation to the number of votes politicians can award to themselves or their parties. A state with two million registered voters cannot have above two million votes, but if it has seven million registered voters in the voters’ register, the result writers can write up to six million votes for themselves or their party. This anomaly is even worse because we have judicial precedence that shows the almost impossibility of proving that elections are rigged on the basis of the manipulation of the voters’ register. So far, there are no consequences for writing fictitious results other than the violence that these generates. However, as the new electoral law and technology makes it difficult to write fictitious results, analysts may interpret electoral numbers as voter apathy, when in reality it is a case of “ghosts“ who are unable to vote.

The second way the voters’ register can become a tool for structural rigging is when information or data is skewed or disorganised to make it difficult to verify a voter. If information about the address, age, and other personal information is inaccurate, it becomes time-consuming and even challenging to accredit voters, thereby disenfranchising them. In some cases, people voting for a particular politician or party are discredited, and time is wasted in the accreditation process, making some voters not vote because it never got to their turns to vote or they leave in frustration, thereby tilting the outcome of the elections in a predetermined direction. Therefore, it is vital to update the necessary and verifiable information of voters on the register before elections, and INEC must never allow politicians to influence that process. Fake and multiple registrations are a clog in the efficient and effective voting process.

 

These reasons have given rise to the questioning of the integrity of our voters’ register. Stakeholders, political parties, and the civil society all know and acknowledge that our voters’ register is not credible. Moreover, the document is key to free and fair elections and it is at the roots of the manipulation and rigging of elections. The system has undergone reforms to make our voters’ register credible, from manual voters’ registration to the biometric, bimodal voter accreditation system (BVAS) and then the automated biometric identification system (ABIS). However, these reforms have not wholly guaranteed the integrity of our voters’ register. This is not peculiar to Nigeria or developing countries. Even advanced democracies face a similar challenge, with broad implications.

Politicians are desperate to win elections for economic gains, and the manipulation of the voters’ register is at the root of rigging elections, in addition to basic dishonesty among the political elite. Therefore, INEC must do all it takes to stop politicians by protecting the voters’ register. INEC must make sure that its staff do not collude with political actors to rig elections by manipulating the voters’ register and anyone found guilty must face the wrath of the law. There must be consequences for aiding and abetting the manipulation of the voters’ register and by extension election rigging. The political elite and their accomplices found guilty by a competent court of law of rigging elections must face the recommended punishment, as deterrence to others. People rig elections here with impunity and get away with it. The pertinent question is: What can we do now to end the structural and even procedural rigging of elections in Nigeria, especially when it comes to manipulations of the voters’ registers?

I recommend that INEC, in the near future, should start merging the voters’ register with the national identification number (NIN). The NIN has given us the opportunity of creating a national database of Nigerians. Using the NIN to help verify and complement the information on the voters’ cards will help reduce the number of “ghost voters” on the register. This is even more pertinent, given the dearth of reliable data on deaths, births, and the population generally. There is currently a data mayhem in the country. It is also vital that INEC performs regular audits of the voters’ register using other parallel biometric registration systems and databases (such as the driver’s license register). The voters’ register must be a live register and must constantly be updated to make it current and relevant.

INEC must hasten to move away from analogue practices and embrace automation and digitisation technology. INEC must combat the high level of voter ignorance and illiteracy that leads to multiple registrations or that makes some voters become pawns in the hands of greedy politicians. An information campaign using social and traditional media, digital and analogue, to reach and educate voters before registration is necessary.

 

The problem of a credible voters’ register is real and with us now. It may be the bane of the 2023 general elections if nothing is done now to improve the situation. Politicians are already capitalising on some of these loopholes mentioned to undermine credible elections in 2023. I must acknowledge the progress in improving our electoral systems and alleviating election rigging in Nigeria. We are moving in the right direction.

Nevertheless, more is needed. The impact of the manipulation of the voters’ register and election rigging is enormous. Not only that it subverts the people’s will but forces on the people unscrupulous, morally bankrupt, and inefficient leaders that Nigerians do not want. The result of their leadership also moves the country backwards and into the abyss of underdevelopment, and poverty. It is crucial to our democracy that votes count, and people can choose to vote in or vote out any politician or party that is not delivering the dividends of democracy in line with the people’s hopes, dreams, and aspirations. Anything less than this may lead to a total breakdown of our democratic system in the long run.

Dakuku Peterside is a Nigerian politician, policy and leadership expert.

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