There is some optimism, founded or unfounded, that Nigeria will be witnessing credible elections in 2023. This air of optimism is hinged on many factors, including the recently signed electoral act amendment bill with clauses that will ensure that votes count and electronic transmission of results. Even though this amendment was not in place then, the deployment of technology in the electoral process ensured a free and fair election in the November 2021 governorship election in Anambra State. This is not the first time we have witnessed this level of optimism, and Nigerians are said to be among the most optimistic people on earth. However, it appears the optimism this time is founded on solid grounds. The electoral reforms seem real, tangible, and credible. The mood in the country is such that there are high expectations that our democracy is deepening to the extent that we are getting closer to having a free and fair general election.
However, this optimism is tainted with the reality that Nigerian politicians always found a way to circumvent the electoral system through the instrumentality of manipulation. An optimist assumes that election rigging is surreptitious, accidental, opportunistic, and circumstantial. He further assumes that although there may be some semi-level planning and execution of electoral malpractice, most rigging is operational and procedural. However, recent events show that this view may be overly optimistic and jaundiced. The reality is that election rigging is more structural, heavily articulated and orchestrated than we ever think. As a case study, we will critically examine one structural factor that may undermine the “freeness and fairness” of the 2023 general election.
Registering voters may seem like the most mundane task in the electoral process. It is a simple task that involves registering all eligible voters on the voters’ register that acts as the basis of confirming voters during the conduct of the election. Getting this task right is fundamental to a free and fair election. However, INEC recently revealed that 44.6% of voters registered in the ongoing continuous voters registration exercise is either “ghost” or invalid voters. INEC further posits that it is as high as 60% in some states. This is also reflective of the true state of the existing voters register used for previous elections. There is no denying the fact that the existing voters’ register is riddled with cases of double or multiple registrations, underaged persons, a high number of dead persons, inaccurate assignment of polling booths, and deletion of names of eligible voters. These scenario pictures are mindboggling, and beggars belief.
The issue of voters register is not just peculiar to Nigeria. In most developing countries, voters register irregularities and manipulations have affected their democratic elections and outcomes. In Ghana, the case of irregular voters’ register reached the supreme court and forced a judicial settlement of an electoral issue, which often affects the legitimacy of the outcome of elections. In India’s recent elections, the names of an estimated 120 million eligible voters were missing from the voters’ register. Furthermore, most of the victims were women and people from minority ethnic groups, which suggests that it was deliberate and targeted. In the Gambia, the challenge is the high number of dead persons on the voters’ register. In Guinea recently, there was an inflation in the number of people in the voters’ register who come from specific districts to favour the ruling party. The list goes on.
Winning or losing elections can structurally depend on the content of the voters’ register and how it is used during elections. Politicians know this, and they have started to influence the voters’ register to reflect their intended outcomes. There are hypothetically a few ways voters register can become a weapon of structural rigging of elections.
The most obvious is that the more the number of voters in the voters register from a particular area, the more likely a higher number of votes from that area. Little wonder politicians in some areas influence the registration of “ghost “, ineligible, and sometimes under-aged people on the register. Political actors also try to get people supporting them or their parties to register en masse whilst suppressing voters registration from opposition strongholds . The impact of 60% invalid or “ghost” voters on the forthcoming elections can only be imagined.
There are two main reasons for politicians’ interest in manipulating the voters’ register. Other than their apparent desperation to win elections at all costs, politicians negotiate political power and advantages based on the voting strength of their constituency. The higher the number of voters on the voters register in your constituency, the more bargaining powers you have on the power-sharing table. The second and more pungent reason for manipulating the voters’ register is that politicians rig elections by writing the results, which often does not reflect the actual voting during elections. Voter’s register becomes a limitation to the number of votes they can award to themselves or their party. A state with 2 million registered voters cannot have above 2 million votes, but if it has 7 million registered voters on the voters’ register, the result writers can write up to 6 million votes for themselves or their party. This anomaly is even worse because we have judicial precedence that shows the almost impossibility of proving that elections are rigged based on manipulating the voters’ register. So far, there are no consequences for writing fictitious results other than the violence that it generates. However, as the new electoral law and technology makes it difficult to write fictitious results , analysts may interpret electoral numbers as voters apathy when in reality it is a case of “ghosts “ who are unable to vote.
The second way voters register can become a tool for structural rigging is when information or data is skewed or disorganised to make it difficult to verify a voter. If information about the address, age, and other personal information is inaccurate, it becomes time-consuming and even challenging to accredit voters, thereby disenfranchising them. In some cases, people voting for a particular politician or party are discredited, and time is wasted in the accreditation process, making some voters not vote because it never got to their turn to vote or leave in frustration thereby tilting the outcome of the elections in a predetermined direction. Therefore, it is vital to update necessary and verifiable information of voters on the register before elections, and INEC must never allow politicians to influence that process. Fake and multiple registrations are a clog in the efficient and effective voting process.
These reasons have given rise to questioning the integrity of our voters register. Stakeholders, political parties, and civil society all know and acknowledge that our voters’ register is not credible. Moreover, the voters’ register is key to free and fair elections and is at the root of manipulation and rigging of elections. The system has undergone reforms to make our voters’ register credible, from manual voter registration to biometric, bimodal voter accreditation system (BVAS) to automated biometric identification system (ABIS). However, these reforms have not wholly guaranteed the integrity of our voters register. This is not peculiar to Nigeria or developing countries. Even advanced democracies face a similar challenges with broad implications.
Politicians are desperate to win elections for economic gains, and voters register manipulation is at the root of rigging elections in addition to basic dishonesty among political elite. Therefore, INEC must do all it takes to stop them by protecting the voters’ register. INEC must make sure that its staff do not collude with politicians to rig elections by manipulating the voters’ register and anyone found guilty must face the wrath of the law. There must be consequences for aiding and abetting voters register manipulation and by extension election rigging . Political elite and their accomplices found guilty by a competent court of law of rigging elections must face the punishment as a deterrent to others. People rig elections here with impunity and get away with it. The pertinent question is: what can we do now to end structural and even procedural rigging of elections in Nigeria, especially when it comes to manipulations of the voters’ registers?
I recommend that INEC in the near future starts merging the voters’ register with national identification number (NIN ). The NIN has given us the opportunity of creating a national database of Nigerians. Using the NIN to help verify and complement the information on the voters’ cards will help reduce the number of “ghost voters” on the register. This is even more pertinent given the dearth of reliable data on death, birth, and population generally. There is currently a data mayhem in the country . It is also vital that INEC performs regular audits of the voters’ register using other parallel biometric registration systems and databases (such as the driver’s license register). The voters’ register must be a live register and must constantly be updated to make it current and relevant.
INEC must hasten to move away from analogue practices and embrace automation and digitisation technology. INEC must combat the high level of voter ignorance and illiteracy that leads to multiple registrations or some voters becoming pawns in the hands of greedy politicians . An information campaign using social and traditional media, digital, and analogue, to reach and educate voters before registration is necessary.
The problem of credible voters’ register is real and with us now. It may be the bane of the 2023 general election if nothing is done now to improve the situation. Politicians are already capitalising on some of these loopholes mentioned to undermine credible elections come 2023. I must acknowledge the progress in improving our electoral systems and alleviating election rigging in Nigeria. We are moving in the right direction.
Nevertheless, more is needed. The impact of voters register manipulation and election rigging is enormous. Not only that it subverts the people’s will but forces on the people unscrupulous, morally bankrupt, and inefficient leaders Nigerians do not want. The result of their leadership also moves the country backwards and into the abyss of underdevelopment, and poverty. It is crucial to our democracy that votes count, and people can choose to vote in or vote out any politician or party that is not delivering dividends of democracy in line with the people’s hopes, dreams, and aspirations. Anything less than this may lead to a total breakdown of our democratic system in the long run.