T he Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, is the body in charge of the electoral system of Nigeria. According to the Electoral Act, the duties of INEC include the registration of voters, printing and distribution of permanent voters’ cards, PVCs, planning and conduct of elections and so on. With the end of the controversial and epileptic continuous voters’ registration, CVR, exercise on 31st July, 2022, the next important exercise before INEC is the distribution of PVCs to Nigerian voters.
The intrigues that characterized the CVR exercise within its schedule in the electoral programme as well as its forceful extension make Nigerians express fears about effective distribution of the permanent voters’ cards. Nigerians will not forget the sluggish manner in which INEC handled the continuous voters’ registration exercise.
At the time the electoral body initially wanted to end the exercise, millions of Nigerian qualified voters had yet to register due to a combination of reasons which mainly bothered INEC’s failure to do the proper things. Calls for extension of the exercise beyond the initially set deadline of 30th June to enable Nigerians who thronged the registration queues were spurned by INEC. With the insensitivity which characterise the Nigerian bureaucracy, INEC pretended that extension of the registration exercise was both impossible and inimical to the successful conduct of the 2023 general elections.
It took the successful legal action of a civil society group, Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project, SERAP, and 185 other applicants to bend the rigid and insensitive INEC. SERAP and other applicants in the case had argued that if INEC planned to end the exercise at the end of the month, it would illegally disenfranchise many Nigerians from getting their PVCs. Delivering his ruling on the application, His Lordship, Justice Mobolaji Olajuwon of the Federal High Court, Abuja, restrained INEC from ending the continuous voters registration exercise pending the final determination of the substantive suit. The House of Representatives through its Committee on Electoral Matters equally asked INEC to extend the CVR exercise by 60 days.
However, the Commission continued the CVR exercise in obedience to the injunction of the Federal High Court, Abuja. On 13th July, 2022, the substantive suit was determined in favour of the electoral body as the court dismissed the suit and ruled that INEC was at liberty to appoint a date for the end of the continuous voters registration exercise not later than 90 days to the date for the commencement of the general elections. With that legal hurdle cleared, INEC ignored the appeal of the lower legislative chamber for a 60- day extension. However, INEC stingily extended the registration exercise by two weeks.
The continuous registration exercise therefore ended on 31st July, 2022 which was about 181 days or six good months before the commencement of the general elections! At the end of the exercise, millions of Nigerians who had attained the age of franchise were on the queue at voters’ registration centres waiting to be registered to qualify to vote in the approaching 2023 general elections. In civilized climes, a public institution like INEC faced with the aforementioned circumstances would have been sensitive enough to extend the exercise for at least between 30 and 60 days to accommodate the overflow of prospective registrants.
Now that the registration exercise has ended, the next important task before INEC is the printing and distribution of the permanent voters’ cards to their respective owners across the country. Section 47 of Electoral Act 2022 makes collection of permanent voters’ cards important. In fact, section 47(1) of the electoral act states that: “A person intending to vote in an election shall present himself with his voter’s card to a Presiding Officer for accreditation at the polling unit in the constituency in which his name is registered.”
The implication of this is that presentation of the PVC is the basic qualification for accreditation and participation as a voter in the election. So, INEC should distribute the PVCs to enable the new registrants exercise their respective franchises. According to INEC Commissioner in Charge of Voter Education, Mr. Festus Okoye, the PVCs shall be ready for distribution by October this year. It is expected that INEC should work out a coherent and efficient method of ensuring that the PVCs get to their owners within the ample period of three months between October and February 2023 when the elections will start.
INEC is hereby advised to engage NYSC members as ad hoc distribution staff; and make every polling unit a collection centre for easy and effective distribution. With the plugging of most of the rigging points by the new electoral act, hoarding of PVCs can be deployed as a political tactic to reduce candidates’ votes in their areas of popularity. INEC should watch and resist attempts to lure her staff into such a negative conspiracy by monitoring the distribution of the PVCs; and by providing toll-free telephone numbers for independent reports on the progress of PVC distribution.