By Daniel Kanu
Recently, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) announced its readiness to embark on the delineation of polling units in the country. Thus the Commission has agreed to engage election stakeholders for the marking out exercise which it noted is critical to the 2023 general elections.
There is no gainsaying the fact that INEC over the years had been dogged with challenges of creating more polling units needed to ease congestion.
Presently, there are 120,000 polling units in the country, which INEC said is not enought and is hindering access to polling units by voters.
It is on record that the last time new polling units were created was in 1996, 25 years ago, and this was done by the defunct National Electoral Commission of Nigeria (NECON).
The 120,000 polling units were expected to serve a projected population of about 50 million voters in Nigeria at that time.
However, in 2014, attempt by former Chairman of the commission, Prof Attahiru Jega, to create additional polling units was met with stiff opposition, specifically from the South, which alleged that the North was allocated more polling units.
In a recent meeting with INEC management, the Commission deliberated on the challenges posed by inadequacies of polling units in the country and decried how millions of Nigerians have been potentially disenfranchised due to lack of access to where to cast their votes.
INEC Chairman, Prof ahmood Yakubu at a stakeholders meeting with political parties’ leaders in Abuja, last month said that expanding voters’ access to polling units in the country was crucial to voters’ turnout in elections while reassuring emphaticallyhat there was no going back in its plan to create new polling units ahead of 2023 elections.
Yakubu argued that experience had shown that enhancing voters access to polling units usually increase turnout in elections.
He noted further that many countries expanded access to polling units with every fresh registration of voters while others do so routinely or before every general election.
According to Yakubu, “Increase in voters population, emergence of new settlements, urbanisation, distance to existing polling units, difficult terrain, and other factors require constant review to give the voter a pleasant experience on election day.
“Above all, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is necessary to decongest polling units to minimize overcrowding and reduce the long distances voters travel often in over-crowded means of transport in order to vote during elections”.
Yakubu revealed that: “Today, the number of registered voters is 84,004,084 and it is set to rise after we resume Continuous Voter Registration (CVR) ahead of 2023 general election. Yet, the number of polling units remains static.
“In fact, the biggest category of registered voters on our database (aged 18 to 25 years) was not even born when the current polling units were established a quarter of a century ago.”
Yakubu said that INEC tried unsuccessfully to expand voter access to polling units in 2007, 2014, and even before the 2019 general elections, but that the intention was perhaps not properly communicated, therefore, was misunderstood.
“INEC had prepared satellite images of the location of polling units across the country as well as pictures and videos to demonstrate the difficulties faced by voters on election day. The Nigerian voter in particular and our democracy, in general, will be the biggest beneficiaries of increased access to polling units,” Yakubu said.
Also, INEC National Commissioner, Okechukwu Ibeanu, while making a presentation on “The State of Voter Access to Polling Units in Nigeria” also argued that the existing 119,973 PUs were not serving the purpose.
He said that the problem was nationwide and not limited to a particular state or political region of the country.
Ibeanu told Sunday Sun that the PUs was not adequate in number, not conducive to voters in terms of exercising the right to vote, especially in the context of the COVID-19 protocols.
He said that there was a strong link, such that the much the number of voters per polling unit, the lower the voter turnout.
“They are also not suitable for the commission to properly conduct its work in terms of ensuring that elections are properly conducted according to the rules and regulations,” he said.
Illustrating the voter turnout decline in Nigeria during elections, Ibeanu said that between 1999 and in 2019, voter turnout in Nigeria dropped by 17 per cent.
“But, compare that to Ghana, between 2019 and 2020, voter turnout actually rose by 17 per cent. We think that this is strongly correlated with the number of voters per polling unit,” he said.
Festus Okoye, INEC national commissioner in charge of information and voter education, commenting on the issue also corroborated the views of Prof Yakubu, explaining that one of the programmes the commission has mapped out towards the 2023 general election is expanding voter access to polling units.
Okoye told Sunday Sun that INEC conducted the 2019 general election with over 57,000 voting points tied to the main polling units, adding that the commission has been working towards converting those voting points into full-fledged polling units, as well as taking them now to under-served areas.
Okoye said that the delineation plan has received the endorsement of not only the National Economic Council under the leadership of the Vice President, Prof Yemi Osinbajo, but also by other stakeholders.
According to Okoye, “we have consulted with the National Economic Council, under the leadership of the vice president of the Federal Republic of Nigeria made up of the various state governors and they have endorsed it.
“We have also made a presentation to the Federal Executive Council, which has also endorsed what we intend to do. We have almost concluded with the consultations. The moment we are done with the consultation in the next few weeks or so, we will move to implementation. This implementation will take place at the level of the local government areas and state levels because that is where this conversion will take place.”
Chairman of Inter-Party Advisory Council (IPAC), Dr Leonard Nzenwa has described the effort by INEC to expand polling units as timely.
Nzenwa said that it was timely especially at a time the National Assembly Joint Committee on INEC was almost completing work on the amendment of the Electoral Act, 2010.
He told Sunday Sun that “polling units constitute the basic structure of Nigeria’s electoral system and democracy. So, its presence in terms of adequacy, conduciveness and a good environment is very important and will help to deepen our democracy,”.
He said that IPAC will continue to support INEC in the effort to deepen the country’s democracy by getting a credible election.
Sunday Sun gathered that INEC intends to create additional 57, 023 polling units from the present 119, 973. The Commission, according the information, would apply a lower and upper limit for any PU in the country. This means that moving forward lower limit would be 500, while no PU would have more than 750 registered voters.
President, Voters Awareness Initiative (VAI), Wale Ogunade told Sunday Sun that the move by INEC is a welcome development as there is an urgent need for delineation for more polling units to accommodate and capture new voting brackets, as well as decongest over-crowding of PUs.
According to Ogunade, “it’s a long time since our group, voters awareness initiative, particularly has been in the forefront clamouring for increased polling units and, of course, by extension constituency delineation because as I am talking to you now between now and the general election a lot of people must have gone into the 21 years age bracket, so they too must be included.
“So, if the opportunity is not given to new entrants to come into the voting circle, definitely they will be disenfranchised automatically. So, the only way to remove that automatic disenfranchisement is for the INEC to increase polling units all over. It is different from polling centres”.
He said that there was nothing to be afraid of as technology is available to track any corrupt tendency to manipulate the exercise to the advantage or disadvantage of any area, local government or state.
In the past, some PUs used to have over 1,500 registered voters, but INEC sources said that there would be no cause for alarm as no constituency, state, or region will lose any of their PUs.
Activist and lawyer, Comrade Umunna Anyaso told Sunday Sun that the delineation move was a nice initiative, but he expressed worry on how it could be done given the Nigerian system without “any political or interest group using it to manipulate for political advantage”
Ms. Cynthia Mbamalu, director of programmes at YIAGA Africa, a youth empowerment organization said: “What we are dealing with is a long time challenge that has existed over time and will give credibility and access to the system said that has done extensive work on voter power and elections.”
She said that the project was long overdue.