Call for Jega’s removal tears North, South apart
In this piece, JOHN ALECHENU takes a look at the controversy generated by the decision of the Independent National Electoral Commission to create additional polling units.
As the 2015 general elections draws near, the action or inactions of the Independent National Electoral Commission is sure to attract public attention.
It therefore did not come as a surprise that the commission’s decision to increase the number of polling units from 120,000 to 150, 000 has generated more than a passing interest from a section of Nigerians.
Several interest groups have viewed the timing and motive of the exercise with suspicion. Perhaps the greatest attack yet has come from the Southern Nigeria Peoples Assembly.
The group which boasts an array of elder statesmen such as: Chief Edwin Clark, former Vice-President Alex Ekwueme and Senator Femi Okorounmu, felt so strongly about the issue that it demanded the resignation of INEC Chairman, Prof. Attahiru Jega.
Presenting the group’s position at a press conference in Abuja, on Wednesday, Okorounmu described the creation and allocation of 30,000 additional polling units as “shocking and indefensible.”
He accused Jega of attempting to justify the creation of the additional units by claiming that it was for the purpose of decongesting the polling units ahead of the 2015 election and easing the logistic challenges of the commission during the elections.
He said, “As plausible as these reasons may sound to the architects of this voodoo and arbitrary allocation of polling units, the people of southern Nigeria and indeed the Southern Nigerian Peoples Assembly view this invidious act as a script perfectly crafted for Prof. Jega to implement, in continuation of the well-known hegemonic agenda, by the enemies of our hard won democracy.”
Okorounmu stressed that the people of southern Nigeria were not only appalled but strongly reject Jega’s claims and averment used to justify the decision.
According to him, whatever persuasions may have motivated this decision, it was orchestrated to give the North a clear political advantage over the South.
Members of the group recalled that the current 119,973 polling units were delineated on the premise of 73 million registered voters prior to the 2011 general elections.
They further argued that it was the same INEC, which based on perennial claims of ghost voters, introduced the Automated Finger Identification System.
The AFIS system reduced the registered voting population from the 73 million registered voters to 57 million.
This coupled with the distribution of Permanent Voter Cards the group said, was expected to usher in a new regime of free, fair and credible elections.
The group said instead, the electoral management body decided to “assail our sensibilities” by saying a reduced voter strength of 57 million registered voters need more polling units of 150,000 as against 119,973 polling units when the total registered voters were reportedly 73million.
The group also picked holes in allotment of the 30,000 new polling units which it said was clearly skewed in favour of the North where Jega hails from.
Specifically, the group accused the commission’s boss of pursuing an ethnic agenda by marginalising the entire southern Nigeria by allocating 21,615 polling units to the North as against 8,412 to the South.
A breakdown of the registered voters and the polling units according to zones revealed that the North-East which had 10,445,510 registered voters in 2011 and 16,859 polling units, is to have 5,291 units added to it.
The North-Central which had 10,573,968 registered voters and 14,979 existing polling units is to benefit from an additional 6,318 units.
North-West with 18,607,496 registered voters currently has 29,961 polling units, is to have 7,906 units added to it. The Federal Capital Territory with 892,628 voters and an existing 562 polling units is to have an additional 1,200 units.
The South-East with a total of 7,178,185 voters which currently has 15,529 polling units is to have an additional 1,167 units.
The South-South with a current voting population of 9,486,718 and 17, 710 exiting polling units, is to have 3,087 units added to it while the South-West with a voting population of 13,188,864 with 24,673 existing polling units is to have an additional 4,160 units.
Okorounmu queried the logic behind this distribution in the light of current realities.
According to him, if the South-West with a voting population of 13,188,864 had 24,673 polling units when compared to the North West with a voting population of 18, 607, 496 and 29,961 polling units, what then is responsible for the 47 per cent disparity in the number of new polling units?
One of the poignant questions being asked in some quarters include: how come the North-East zone an area from which people are fleeing in droves due to the Boko Haram insurgency, is receiving additional polling units than any of the zones in the South?
In response, Jega described criticisms against INEC’s decision to sanitise the polling units structure ahead of the 2015 election as unjustified.
He observed that the criticisms were based largely on an unsubstantiated conspiracy theory, that the commission has done a disproportional distribution of the polling units across Nigeria which was aimed at foisting the dominance of one section of the country over the others for political advantage.
He said the suspicion was quite understandable, albeit regrettable that, given the low level of public trust in governance institutions in our clime, and the acrimony that attends to the “distribution” or “allocation” of virtually anything in our country, people tend to view every policy decision with some suspicion.
Jega cautioned that as Nigerians we must be careful not to reduce patriotic causes to primordial biases.
He explained that INEC’s decision to re-configure the structure of polling units as well as create additional ones was driven by the need to reform and improve upon the electoral process for free, fair, peaceful and credible elections in 2015 and beyond.
The INEC boss insisted that there was no sectional or parochial agenda in this decision.
He said the basic aim of the exercise the commission was presently undertaking was to ease the access of voters to the ballot box in the 2015 general elections and beyond.
The chairman of the election management body said the creation of additional polling units would help in decongesting over-crowded ones and dispersing voters as evenly as possible among all the units.
This, he also said, would help the commission locate the units more effectively within commuting distances of voters, given that movement is usually restricted on election day.
He also noted that the additional polling units were required to make room for the split of large ones such that they have on average of 500 registered voters.
Jega said “The present structure of polling units was created in 1996 by the defunct National Electoral Commission of Nigeria, which created 120,000 polling units and 8,809 wards (Registration Areas).
“This structure of polling units has been used for the 1999, 2003, 2007, and 2011 general elections. We are all witnesses to the congested polling units on election days in 2011 and since then in many parts of the country.
“From 1996 to date, there has been an exponential growth in Nigeria’s population; and there have been severe demographic shifts resulting from new settlements in major urban areas.”
He further explained that in 1996 when the current polling unit structure was put in place, the estimated population of the country was about 110m.
However, by 2006, after a national population census, the population rose to 140 million. In 2011, when the voters’ registration was undertaken, the population was estimated to be about 160 million.
Today’s estimates put Nigeria’s population at around 175 million. This, he said, represents nearly 60 per cent rise in the population since 1996.
These factors, he argued, have among other things, translated to over-crowded polling units and the fact that some established settlements have not been captured under the existing polling unit structure which was evident during the 2011 general elections and other elections thereafter.
This rise in population, with corresponding increase in the number of eligible voters was clearly manifested during the 2011 fresh voter registration exercise, he added.
For now, political parties have refrained from making a comment about the dispute as some of them claim to be “studying the situation.” However, a fresh disagreement emerged on Thursday as northern politicians kicked against the call for the removal of Jega
A Kano State delegate to the just concluded National Conference, Dr. Junaid Mohammed, said the call had exposed the people of the South-East and South-South as ingrates who lack a sense of decency.
According to him, the call by the group was an attempt to blackmail the Federal Government. He said although he was not Jega’s fan, he did not agree that Jega should be sacked for the reasons cited by the Southern Nigeria Peoples Assembly.
He said “I don’t for a moment care for Jega and I have never commended his performance in INEC, but this just shows people like Jega that people in the South-South and in the South-East have no sense of gratitude, they have no sense of propriety, they have no sense of decency and in their own calculations; they believe everybody outside their tribal enclave is a tool to be used and dumped.”
He further noted that if indeed Jega deserves to be sacked, he should have been sacked a long time ago but not for the reasons adduced by the “South-South irredentists and tribalists like Chief Edwin Clark.”
According to him, the moment someone like Clark runs down somebody, it shows that the man is doing his job. He explained that whatever the circumstance, Chief Clark is the last person to demand that somebody should be sacked.
Mohammed said if people have genuine concerns about the distributions of these additional units it should be taken up with INEC and whoever was found guilty should be dealt with.
“The SNPA lacks the moral ground to form itself into judge, prosecutor and jury on matters affecting an election which they have a stake in. If the government gives in to this blackmail, it should be prepared to give in to more blackmail from other sections of the country,” he said.