opinionBy Tonnie Iredia
In 1999, the military organized an election for the return of democracy to Nigeria. Whether the election was free and fair did not quite matter because everyone, having become tired of dictatorship, accepted its outcome so as to prevent the military from finding an excuse to stay-put in the political terrain. The revelation by the independent election observers that the election had more votes than voters suggested that the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) had an inaccurate voters' register. We seem to have continued till today to use incorrect statistics to conduct elections in the country. In 2003, the electoral body allegedly spent N45 billion to organize fresh registration of voters but the claim by its then chairman, Dr Abel Guobadia that our election process had been largely computerized was refuted by his successor, Prof. Maurice Iwu. Thus, when Prof. Attahiru Jega took over, many Nigerians conscious of INEC's fragile database canvassed support for him to be properly funded to do a good job. The man asked for billions of naira to organize a credible voters' register and he got it. Schools were even closed for weeks to enable him use some of their facilities for the exercise.
Surprisingly, INEC brought in tools called 'Direct Data Capturing machines' (DDC) which functioned like 'second-hand' implements. Till date, she is yet to produce permanent voters' cards from an exercise that took place some 3 years back. Worse still, old problems such as late arrival of election personnel and materials and other logistic deficiencies have still not left us as they were observed in many of the elections since then in places like Adamawa, Kogi, Bayelsa, Edo etc. Partly on account of the charisma of Jega and partly because some of the elections were considered better than past exercises, some people have remained optimistic that the difficult days would soon be over. We are however not similarly enthused by the rather inconsequential incremental reforms of our election process. What Nigeria needs now is an electoral body that can premise its operations on technology and employ international best practices in the conduct of elections.
Accordingly, we need to go for a hitch-free strategy and not one that merely produces elections that are flawed but appear better than previous ones. Here, the approach of Dr Akinwumi Adeshina, the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development in his reforms of our Agric sector recommends itself. Oh yes, we must not allow the controversies of the huge sums involved in the telephone arrangement for farmers to becloud the principle of the innovation. We are not concerned here about how the Minister repeated what his Permanent Secretary said while purporting to clarify it, neither do we care about the cost of the project nor who picks the bill. Instead, what matters are the gains of his innovation.
Unlike many political office holders, Adeshina rejects the use of hype to guide policies. Rather, he relies on evidence based on modern technology and well analyzed data to transform Agriculture in Nigeria". If INEC adopts the same approach, it would be more efficient in carrying out its mandate instead of abdicating from them to suit the emotions of the moment. For instance, it was wrong of INEC to have, on account of the hype of undue tension created by politicians disenfranchised some voters in 2012 by refusing to revise the voters' register to include those who had become eligible to vote since after the last registration exercise. It is note worthy too, that Adeshina understands his target audience as well as the complexity of his assignment. He is aware of the 3 types of farmers in Nigeria, that is, the real farmers who work on farms; the remote control farmers who direct works in farmlands in rural areas from the large cities and the bureaucratic farmers who though have no farms are well positioned to divert farming incentives to themselves. Adeshina chose to use technology not only to concentrate on the real farmers; but also to annihilate the impostors. INEC needs to similarly patronize real voters and stamp out the ghosts and their fake returns.
What Adeshina did was to find a way to directly reach farmers in the rural areas with relevant information having found that it is difficult to communicate with71 percent of them. The same farmers who are also likely to be voters can as well be reached with relevant voter information that can put a halt to low voter turnout and the large number of spoilt ballot papers in our elections. If like Adeshina, INEC partners with relevant bodies like the Ministry of Communication Technology the lame excuse that Nigeria is not ripe for electronic voting would no longer hold. In fairness to INEC, Section 52 of the Electoral Act which bans the use of electronic voting is unfair because it constraints her in the performance of a legally imposed mandate. The provision of Section 118 of the Constitution that "the registration of voters and the conduct of elections shall be subject to the direction and supervision of the Independent National Electoral Commission" is so clear that there is no vacuum in the law which the legislature seeks to fill by directing INEC as it has done through the Electoral Act. In earnest, a look at paragraph 15 Part 1 of the Third Schedule to the Constitution gives the electoral body the power "to organize, undertake and supervise elections". The same paragraph allows the legislature to get involved only in regulating the registration of political parties which shows clearly that our legislators who are themselves contestants in the game of elections have no say in the conduct of elections let alone the format or voting method to be used.
The bogus 'busy body' provision of the electoral act must therefore be expunged to allow our electoral body to do what is done everywhere else. Manual voting has no efficacy. It can only enrich groups like thugs, polling agents, INEC staff, security agencies, university vice chancellors who serve as returning officers and judges at ALL levels. It is only technology that can actually wipe out election malpractices and also nullify the intimidating power of incumbents. Adeshina can be of help here.