How will the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) distribute the new polling units it is planning to create in its efforts to expand the existing 119, 973 polling units in the country?
Will the distribution ensure equity between the nation’s two major geopolitical zones of North and South?
These are the questions agitating the minds of critical stakeholders as INEC rallied support for the fresh polling units’ delineation.
So far, the commission has received 5,000 requests for the creation of new polling units from 25 states and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT).
INEC had said it planned to create the new polling units because the extant 119,973 polling units and 57,023 polling points were grossly in adequate for the 84,004,084 voters in the country as at 2019 general election.
The decision to create the new polling units is mainly due to the rapidly growing population and changing demographics as well as the registration of new voters, creation of new settlements, including camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs), and the need to decongest crowded polling units in urban areas, especially given the COVID-19 pandemic.
But THISDAY learnt that political parties and others, at a meeting with INEC last week expressed worries about how the new polling units would be distributed.
They anchored their concerns on the earlier projection by the former INEC Chairman, Prof. Attahiru Jega, who in August 2014 sought to create 30,027 additional polling units ahead of the 2015 general election, with 21,615 in the North and 8,412 in the South.
Controversy had trailed the proposed plan due to its lopsidedness, forcing INEC to drop the exercise.
The latest concerns, according to stakeholders from the two main political parties, the All Progressives Congress (APC) and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), is how INEC will allocate the new polling units without necessarily giving an undue advantage to any of the political divide, the North and the South, because of the high stake associated with 2023 general election.
A source told THISDAY: “In 2014, the idea was jettisoned because out of the 30,027 additional polling units ahead of the 2015 general election, the North was allocated 21,615 while 8,412 was allocated to the South, according to in the sharing formula proposed by the commission.
“This was quite disproportional in the sharing as the North got 21,615 and the South considered as densely populated received only 8, 412. This was the controversy that led to killing the idea of creating and expanding the polling units in August 2014.
“At the meeting between the political parties and the INEC last Friday, we agreed that the creation and expansion of the polling units are welcomed but we don’t seem to know the criteria for this. This is the fear most of us expressed at the meeting.”
The source said although they agreed in principle on the need for more polling units, they are waiting for the criteria so as not to repeat what happened in 2014.
“This is particularly due to the coming 2023 presidential election,” he stressed.
But in a communiqué after the meeting, the political parties asked INEC to immediately commence the process of converting existing voting points and voting point settlements into full-fledged polling units.
The six-point communiqué, signed by leaders of 17 political parties, including the APC and PDP stated that given the current state of voter access to polling units in Nigeria, expanding access to polling units is fundamental to the exercise of the right to vote and to free, fair and credible elections.
Also, at the weekend, it was gathered that INEC has already received 5,000 requests for polling units from 25 states and the FCT.
INEC National Commissioner and Chairman, Electoral Operations and Logistics Committee, Prof. Okechukwu Ibeanu, gave the figure in a report titled: ‘The State of Voter Access to Polling Units in Nigeria,’ and made available to THISDAY.
He noted that the current configuration of polling units in the country is grossly inadequate and cannot guarantee the fundamental democratic right of Nigerians to vote.
He said since polling units give meaning to the right to vote, this automatically connotes that a place to vote gives meaning to the right to vote.
According to him, if an individual has a right to vote without a place to cast the vote, then the supposed right is at best superficial.
“If you have a right to vote, but you don’t have a place to vote, then that right is essentially academic,” Ibeanu added.
He expressed the commission’s belief that the current polling units are not fit for the purpose.
The interesting thing, he added, “is that this problem is nationwide. It’s not about one part of the country or another; east or west, North or South.”
He reiterated the INEC Chairman, Prof. Mahmood Yakubu’s statement earlier at the meeting with political parties that the current 119,973 polling units were created “a quarter of a century ago” while the situation has remained the same since then.
Putting the issue in context, Ibeanu said the polling units are not only inadequate in number but are also not conducive to voters’ exercise of the right to vote, especially in the context of the ranging COVID-19 pandemic. Besides, he added that they are also not suitable for the commission to properly conduct its work in terms of ensuring that elections are properly conducted according to rules and regulations.
He said: “It is important to note that voters’ access to polling units is not just about having adequate numbers. It’s not about just establishing more polling units. It’s also to ensure that those polling units, when they are established, are fit for purpose, conducive to voters in terms of exercising their democratic rights and also, perhaps as important, that they are suitable for the commission to do its work.
“Unfortunately over the years, it’s just the first aspect of access to polling units that is emphasised, that is the creation of more polling units. But if the problem is just about creating more polling units, then it is clear to me that some of the solutions that the commission had tried like the use of voting points would have solved the problem. But it hasn’t solved the problem, which means it’s not just about creating polling units. It’s also about locating them in places that are conducive for voters.”
He listed some of the manifestations of the crisis of voters’ access to polling units as overcrowding and electoral violence.
Many of the PUs, he stated, are also located in conflict areas, homes of political chieftains, deep forests and shrines.
The crisis “also manifests in poor electoral services such as late commencement of polls, disruption of elections, and the declining voter turnout at elections.
“To illustrate the declining voter turnout at elections, between 1999 and 2019, voter turnout in Nigerian fell by 17 percentage points. But compare that to Ghana: between 2000 and 2020, voter turnout rose by 17 percentage points, the direct converse of the Nigerian situation. We think that this is strongly correlated to the average number of voters per polling unit. If you look at the Nigerian situation, the average number of voters per polling unit increased by 217. Conversely for Ghana, it decreased by 91 voters. So, it seems to suggest that the more voters per polling unit, the lower the voter turnout, and I think there is a logic to that.”
Ibeanu said over the years, INEC had tried a number of interim solutions, which did not resolve the matter. He explained that in 2007, the commission introduced baby polling units in 2007, voting points (VPs) in 2011, and voting points settlements (VPS) in 2016 in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT).
He said: “The VPs and VPS have been in use since 2011 and 2016. The critical thing is that these have been stop-gap solutions. In many cases, these interim solutions have constituted their own problems. The baby units, for example, entailed bringing results from them to the mother units for collation. And each time, there was a major crisis because people were wondering where those results were coming from. The same thing applies to the voting points when in some cases, you had over-voting in them, people were wondering whether the results of the entire polling unit would be valid. A permanent solution has remained elusive.
“The commission had tried to establish more polling units in line with the Electoral Act. Section 42 of the Act talks about the commission establishing an adequate number of polling units and allotting voters to them. The commission had also tried to relocate polling units to more suitable places and also to reorganise polling units on election day. But this has been met with resistance. Stakeholders have politicised the issues and there have been all sorts of conspiracy theories about the actual intention of the commission.
Perhaps, the commission should have consulted more widely before embarking on those attempts.”
Ibeanu said the idea behind the engagement with leaders of political parties was to lay all the issues on the table in order to encourage the stakeholders to work with the commission to build a genuine national consensus and to try and find solutions to a national problem ahead of some major activities in the electoral calendar, such as the continuous voter registration (CVR), a number of off-season elections and the 2023 general election.