2019 elections, INEC and the challenge of checking ghost voters

As the general elections draw closer, there are growing concerns that the votes of the dead may count at the polls.

On Monday, the Independent National Electoral Commission, via its verified Twitter handle, announced that the total number of eligible voters for the 2019 general elections on its national register stood at 84,004,084.

The figure released by the INEC National Chairman, Prof. Mahmood Yakubu, during the presentation of the voter register to political parties, was 15,170,608 higher than the 68,833,476 it gave prior to the 2015 polls.

While the release of the latest figure was seen as a laudable move by the commission to keep Nigerians and political parties abreast of the official number of voters expected to exercise their constitutional rights in the forthcoming elections, it also raised concerns about its accuracy, in view of some worrisome revelations in the past.

Mahmood had in February, 2018, urged the National Population Commission to furnish the electoral commission with the names of Nigerians who had passed on since 2015 in order to expunge their names from the voter register.

Although the Chairman of the NPC, Eze Duruiheoma, SAN, expressed the willingness of the population commission to partner INEC in the task, which he described as a ‘wonderful vision,’ he regrettably admitted that the commission did not have the complete records of all births and deaths in the country in the last four years.

In a recent report, an unnamed official of the NPC had revealed that the commission had less than 10 per cent of the records of deaths and births in a purpoted 190 million population country. Nigeria had its last headcount more than a decade ago.

The official blamed the challenge on the lack of funds for the NPC to effectively carry out its responsibilities.

The challenge pointed to the possibility that the names of voters who died within the period might still be on the INEC register and their Permanent Voter Cards could be used by unscrupulous individuals at the polls which are just five weeks away.

In December, 2018, the names of six deceased prominent Nigerians were reported to have been found on the INEC voter register months or years after their obituaries.

Among them were a former Vice President, Alex Ekwueme, who died in November, 2017; former governors, Diepreye Alamieyeseigha (Bayelsa State), Patrick Yakowa (Kaduna State) and Isiaka Adeleke (Osun State); a former Director-General of the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control, Prof. Dora Akunyili; and a former Minister of State for Labour and Employment, James Ocholi, SAN.

Consequently, political observers are worried that millions of Nigerians who have passed on in the last three years could have made up the new figure released by INEC.

Perhaps, more disturbing is the fact that the PVCs of deceased Nigerians have become vulnerable to the prying eyes of corrupt politicians desperately looking for crooked means to win elections.

Already, the electoral commission has come under pressure by some politicians to sell unclaimed PVCs as the polls draw closer.

Sixteen days ago, the Resident Electoral Commissioner in Oyo State, Mr. Mutiu Agboke, reportedly told at a gathering that INEC had received a security report that some unidentified politicians were pushing for the sale of the over 914,000 unclaimed PVCs.

Agboke said, “They (politicians) are looking for the PVCs to buy. They are looking for what is not available because they know that these things are not available. This is the security report at my disposal.

“Tell those who are looking for the PVCs to buy that there is none to buy in Oyo State. I can assure you that no INEC employee will sell PVCs to any politician. I can assure you that the process will be free and fair in Oyo State.”

Analysts are of the view that the alarm raised by the INEC official further underscored the possibility that the votes of some dead Nigerians might count, through unlawful voting, in the February 16 and March 2 elections, if INEC failed to ensure that only the names of registered voters who are alive are contained on its voter register.

In his analysis, a professor of Political Science at the University of Lagos, Derin Ologbenla, said, “INEC does not register deaths and births; that is the job of the local government. So, if anybody dies and his name is on the register, INEC will not know unless it is informed. That is part of the dilemma of our country.

“All the institutions are not working together for the same purpose. If deaths and births are registered and recorded up till date and in a computerised form, at the press of a button, you can send them to INEC. But nobody is doing that.

“Of course, they (PVCs of deceased voters) are going to be taken advantage of by the relatives who are still alive and want some quick cash. But, in all honesty, there is nothing INEC can do about that.”

Ologbenla, however, said the law enforcement agencies must be up and doing to identify persons responsible for such unlawful acts and take appropriate actions.

He said, “Let us say (for example) that a person says that he is Mr. Ibrahim and everybody knows who Mr. Ibrahim is in his ward. But somebody (else) turns up with his voter card, presenting himself as Mr. Ibrahim.

“Obviously, the security agent and the polling agent in that polling booth are supposed to be able to compare the two (faces) and take action because there are photographs on the voter register and the PVC. There is also the fingerprint. So, if you look at all these, it is almost impossible to use somebody’s voter card to vote.”

A lawyer, Mr. Liborous Oshoma, expressed worry that the use of the incident form in the general elections would defeat the essence of the card reader.

“For me, it is because of this concern that some people were of the view that there is the need for us to use electronic accreditation as part of our statutory requirements so that if you present a PVC and we have to authenticate your ownership of the PVC via technology, it will be able to eliminate, to a very large extent, rigging,” Liborous stated.

He explained, “But a situation where we are not going to use technology solely to authenticate, and you have to make recourse to the incident form; people who are not valid owners of the PVCs can actually use them to vote via the incident form

“INEC is complaining that politicians are buying PVCS; if I have the PVC of a deceased relation and I sell it and the user gets there (polling booth) and they (INEC officials) say that the card reader is malfunctioning, all they need is recourse to the incident form.

“So, what INEC, truly, should be doing is not just to update the register but to ensure that anybody that will vote using that register is truly identified as the owner of the name and the PVC, through a process it introduced and called automated fingerprint identification system.”

The Chairman, Partners for Electoral Reforms, Mr. Ezenwa Nwagwu, believes that political parties have an important role to play in enhancing the credibility of the 2019 election by scrutinizing the voter register.

Nwagwu explained, “The voter register has been given to political parties. They were not given (the register) as a ceremony. It is part of the responsibilities of the parties to go through that register, identify those who should not be in that register and call the electoral management body to get those people off.

“But part of the challenge is the clear indolence of political parties. You are going to see a situation where they will not raise one objection. It is a very touchy issue; we have seen a situation in which a political party placed an obituary for somebody who is alive.

“So, it is not just to say that a person has died and should be removed from the register; there has to be a notification. The politicians will exploit that.

He added, “So stakeholders in the electoral process will have to bring evidence that a person (name) ought not to be on the register either by age, that the person is not a Nigerian or that the person has passed on.

“But it is not a straight thing. There has to be a medical report or evidence that that person has actually passed on.”

However, INEC has maintained that its current national register contained the names of living voters only, adding that the smart card reader will not only identify impersonators but also ensure their arrest.

In a telephone chat with Saturday PUNCH, the Chief Press Secretary to the INEC’s national chairman, Mr. Rotimi Oyekanmi, said, “Well, I do not have the details of how many names (of deceased voters) were expunged but I can assure you that the current register has been cleaned up.”

On the concern that the PVCs of deceased voters could be used during the 2019 polls, Oyekanmi said, “That is precisely why INEC is going to use the smart card reader. The smart card reader is intended to achieve three objectives.

“It will authenticate the card to determine whether the card was issued by INEC. It will establish whether you are actually the owner of that card and the third protocol is that you would have to go through biometrics.

“So, there is no way you will pass the three tests, if you are not the actual owner of the card and if the card was not issued by INEC. So, anybody that gets hold of anybody’s card cannot use that card; if you present yourself with someone else’s card, we will arrest you.”

However, amid the divergent opinions on the issue, reports from the coming polls across the country will show whether the dead would really be allowed to rest in peace.

(PUNCHNG)