Wednesday, March 20, 2013

An eyewitness account of 2013 FCT council poll

As a psephologist (someone involved in the study of elections), I like observing and commenting on the conduct of elections across the world. I have been privileged to observe Nigeria’s General Elections since 1999 and have had opportunity of being a short-term observer in Ghana in 2008 and the United States of America in 2010 during the mid-term elections. On March 16, duty called again as I was one of the accredited observers that went about the Federal Capital Territory Area Councils monitoring the election. At the end of the exercise, my peregrination had taken me to a total of 17 polling units across four out of the six area councils, namely Bwari, AMAC, Gwagwalada and Kuje Area Councils.
The importance of council elections either in Nigeria or any other country of the world cannot be overemphasised. As many are wont to say, local government is the closest to the people in the communities either rural or urban. The law has made it non-negotiable for governance at this grass-roots level to be by democratically elected persons. Unfortunately, most local governments in Nigeria are governed by sole administrators and caretaker committees.  This is clearly in breach of Section 7(1) of the 1999 Constitution, as amended. As of the last count, only about 20 of the 36 states have conducted council elections. Election into the FCT Area Councils is unique in the sense that unlike the polls into the other 768 Local Governments which are conducted by the State Independent Electoral Commissions; the Independent National Electoral Commission is empowered by Section 103 (1) of the Electoral Act 2010, as amended to organise elections into the six Area Councils of the FCT.
As a trained BRIDGE (Building Resources in Democracy, Governance and Elections) facilitator, positive feedback is given first before the shortcomings of any issue under consideration. Thus, I wish to recount a dozen things I observed that INEC did well in conducting the elections. In many of the polling units visited, election officials arrived early and accreditation commenced within an hour of poll opening. This is a commendable feat compared to previous elections where polls did not start until two to three hours behind schedule. The sufficiency of polling materials is also praiseworthy. Everything needed for the conduct of the election from pens to ballot papers and boxes down to result sheets and voting cubicles were provided. In the areas I visited, none of the poll officials complained of a shortage of voting materials. The break-up of polling units to voting points for administrative convenience and effective crowd management was also commendable. Since many of the Polling Units had over 1000 potential voters on the Voter Register instead of the envisaged maximum of 500, INEC decided to create Voting Points in any polling units that has more than 300 voters to enable the poll officials to accredit those who turn out to vote between the hours of 8am and 12 noon.
The ad hoc staff engaged by INEC were well-trained. In Kuje Area Council, I was told by poll officials that they were trained for three days: March 6 – 8. This is a welcome development and a clear departure from the past when such training was done in one day. The fact that the election was largely peaceful with no serious incident of violence such as bombings, rigging, kidnapping, reported added value to the poll. Another plus for the election was the enforcement of the restriction of movement order. I must however say that this is a double edged sword. While this contributed to the success of the election, it has its drawback which I will come to later. The polls were adequately policed with both the military and paramilitary agencies deployed to maintain law and order during the elections. The voting process was also very transparent with the party agents, accredited journalists and observers given free access to observe the entire process from distribution of poll materials to accreditation, voting, counting, collation, announcement of results and declaration of winners.
I am also happy that polling units were well-demarcated with appropriate signs displayed to enable voters identify the voting centres. Among the signs on display were Polling Zone, Voting in Progress, etc. All the polling units visited also had voting cubicles where voters thumbprint for their choice candidates before coming to drop their ballot in the Ballot Box in clear view of the public. Many may wonder why this is newsworthy. Secrecy of ballot is one of the salient requirements of international covenants and protocols on credible elections. INEC deserve applause for using customised ballot papers. By this, I mean, only parties fielding candidates have their names and logo on the ballot. Thus, even though there were a total of 13 political parties contesting the poll, in some area councils where only six or five fielded candidates, only that number are reflected on the ballot papers for that council. For instance, in Gwagwa area of AMAC, there were 12 chairmanship and 9 councillorship candidates’ whereas in Kukwuaba in Kubwa community of Bwari Area Council, there were eight chairmanship and four councillorship candidates reflected on the ballot papers.
As per areas in need of improvements; these are quite few. Crowd management is an issue in some few places while the militarisation of a civil exercise is unwholesome. Likewise is the restriction of movement which forced travellers to halt their journey and voters to abandon their civic obligation. The most noticeable one is the poor voter turnout which many blamed erroneously on INEC. It is important to note that while it is true that there was widespread voter apathy, the issue is not to be blamed on the electoral body. I know that the commission runs Electoral Half Hour on some national television stations and similarly has a programme dedicated to voter education on Radio Nigeria. What’s more, INEC also organised several sensitisation programmes with political parties as well as voter education forums in each of the six area councils. If other stakeholders such as the political parties and candidates, non-governmental organisations and even the media had mobilised voters as well, perhaps, the story might have been different.
It is equally important to note that several factors account for low voter turnout at elections. Aside from insufficient voter awareness creation, other things responsible for the phenomenon include: Loss of voter card and ignorance of replacement procedures; unimpressive governance scorecard by previous elected officeholders; long distance of voters to their polling units and the restriction of movement order by government; fear of violence; relocation of potential voters and lack of knowledge of procedures to transfer their details to the new area; lastly, some voters are not simply interested in local elections. Of all the itemised factors, I think the major cause of the insignificant turnout of voters last Saturday is lack of dividends of democracy. There is clear absence of governance in many of the area councils visited. The roads are impassable, no drinkable water, be it pipe-borne or borehole; health centres are without personnel and equipment, among others. Thus, Abuja residents largely see the exercise as time-wasting. I do hope the candidates who triumphed at the poll will fulfil their campaign promises. If INEC will also promptly commence the distribution of permanent voter card, this will help increase voter turnout in future elections as those who have lost their temporary voter card will now have a more durable voter card. Furthermore, INEC will do well to embark on continous voters register so that those who have turned 18 years since the last registration exercise can be enlisted on the voters roll.
All said, the 2013 FCT Area Council elections held on March 16 was, to my own mind, conducted largely in substantial compliance with the electoral laws. The challenge thrown by INEC by virtue of the successful poll is for those states that have yet to conduct local government elections to organise theirs forthwith.