Monday, January 17, 2011

Nigeria commenced its voter registration exercise on Saturday, January 15th in anticipation of upcoming elections. The first two days of registration have featured highs and lows. These first days also raise questions about the preparedness of the Independent National Election Commission (INEC) and its ability to not only register voters within the time alloted but also conduct free and fair elections in April.

DAYS 1 & 2
There were many bumps on the first two days of registration. Some people were unaware of their nearest registration center. Others found their registration centers, but found them empty. Others still waited in line for hours, only to be told to return the following day.

The reason for these mishaps were numerous. As to finding centers, attempts to use the INEC interface  proved on its website cumbersome as the program proved buggy. Not to mention of course that the average Nigerian either has no computer or internet access. So for those who did not know their registration center, they could not access the internet to find it. Luckily for those who needed it, an alternative interface was provided online at

That being said, many did find their registration center without needing the internet. Unfortunately, in many cases, the centers opened late, equipment either did not work as expected or did not work at all and police officers, supposed to ensure security were absent in some places. Even former president Obasanjo was unable to register as his biometric data was rejected by the digital data capture technology.

But despite the issues, it turned out that many Nigerians worked with the INEC officials, many of whom are young youth corps members 'drafted' to conduct the exercise, to resolve the problems. There were numerous reports of kind citizens who drove INEC officials to their closest headquarters to get additional supplies. Others provided charging chords to charge the laptops being used to collect biometric data. And other individuals like Henry Okelue gave advise to fellow registrants on how to complete the exercise quickly via twitter. Individuals like Adedamola Layade, Zainab Sandah and Pastor Tunde Bakare (of the real Save Nigeria group) even shared pictures of their new voter registration card.

via Adedamola Layade

According to INEC's election timetable, the Commission will register voters over a two week period, between January 15th and the 29th. The Commission announced that it planned to register at least 70 million Nigerians during that time period. When that target was revealed, several questioned the feasibility of such an ambitious goal. And rightfully so. After all, Nigeria is a country where even the most well-made plans can fall through.

That being said, looking at the first two days of the voter registration raises concerns about INEC's ability to register 70 million Nigerians by the 29th. If machines continue malfunction that goal of 70 million will fall through. And, although violent disruptions were thankfully minimal, if violence becomes an issue, less people will turn up to register.

As such, these issues make an extension of the voter registration period a distinct possibility, if not a possible necessity. However, how many times will INEC request an extension? The Commission already had the elections delayed by several months. Although that delay was compelled by the failures of legislators and not the Commission, further delays will weaken its credibility. Questions about the ability of the Commissioner, Attahiru Jega, to stay on schedule will plague the body and could further destroy any hope of successful elections in the minds of many. Already, there are doubts that the elections will be free and fair, so any more problems will only solidify such attitudes.

And then, there is the question of whether the problems witnessed in the first days of the voter registration spell doom for the actual elections? Elections have been spread out over a three-day period. National Assembly elections will occur on April 2nd, presidential elections will be on April 9th and state government elections will take place on the 16th. The logistical and equipment problems of the registration exercise not only diminish hopes of a well-prepared INEC but could be interpreted as a signal that INEC will not be ready to conduct a series of complex and significant polls. These fears, though well-founded, do no good for the country as they diminish confidence in election officials. That, in itself only serves to further weaken attitudes towards the possibility of democracy in Nigeria. Given the country's history of corruption, fraudulent elections and violence, any good signs that raise hopes in the possibility of successful elections now or at least in the future are crucial.

To encourage such positivity, INEC must consider these first few days a learning curve and leapfrog to efficient voter registration across the country. Luckily, the Commission has slightly less than two weeks to resolve the problems that have arisen and there remains the possibility of an extension if needed. While everyone understands that even INEC is imperfect and will stumble in its mandate to conduct free and fair elections, INEC must overcome the challenges it faces, regardless of their source and provide evidence of success. It cannot rest on the laurels of the respect many have for its Commissioner. The electoral body must prove that it is worthy of respect, capable of achieving its mandate and thus befitting of the trust citizens so desperately want to place in it. Even though Nigeria is a place where the well-made plans can implode, it is also a place where well-made plans miraculously come to pass, in spite of many obstacles. There is still time for INEC to fall into the latter category and indeed, it must.

Thanks to Rosemary Ajayi of 419Positive for her help with pictures for this post. 

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