Nigeria: Debating a New Voters Register Four Months before Election Day

Publication Date: 
24 Aug 2010

Earlier this year, Nigeria held the world’s attention with the illness and subsequent death of President Umaru Yar'Adua. After his passing, Vice President Goodluck Jonathan assumed the presidency. In January 2011, the tenure of the current presidency will expire and Nigeria will hold presidential elections to elect the country’s next leader. The Nigerian press is now engrossed with the debate of whether a new voters register will be ready in time for the election. Staffan Darnolf, IFES Senior Election Advisor, has been working with Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) on this matter. In this interview, he gives us some insight into the issue of the voter registration process in Nigeria.  

IFES: Can you tell us a little about Nigeria’s history with elections?

STAFFON DARNOLF: Nigeria has gone through a number of civilian and military dispensations. The last civilian spell started in the late 1990s. The upcoming elections will be the 4th round of elections in Nigeria under civilian dispensation. So, even if Nigeria is going to celebrate its 50th anniversary as an independent state this year, it is still a fairly young state when it comes to multiparty democracy. 

IFES: The INEC reached out to IFES for help to redo their voter register (VR).  Can you tell us a bit about this?

DARNOLF: One of the most contentious issues to emerge from the previous election, which was held in 2007, was a substandard VR. It contained a whole host of problems including ghost voters, deceased voters, underage voters, and voters who could not find their name on the list.  This affected and undermined a lot of the work of the previous INEC. We now have a new INEC Chairman and new INEC Commissioners to lead this upcoming electoral process.

Since the new members took office two months ago, the new INEC has been focusing on the VR above all else. The election commission has decided to discard the old VR and create a brand new computerized VR. They would like to introduce new technologies into this VR in order to purge it from duplicates and make it more accurate than ever.

Normally, when we advise electoral agencies on creating a voter registers from scratch and they have to do some international procurement, we recommend that they give themselves from 12-18 months to conduct the process. Nigeria now has 4 months to finalize this process. So it’s a high-risk project.

IFES: A good VR is a very important component of a good election. Is the INEC on the right track for being so interested in this process?

DARNOLF: I think it’s correct to say Nigeria needs a new VR. The big question is whether the INEC actually has enough time to create one in time for January. Another big question is whether it better to see if they can build on what they have already and tweak it as a temporary solution for the upcoming election in January. After the election, when there is more time and the country is less tense, they can then focus on creating the new VR, which will take 12-18 months. But I wholeheartedly agree that they need a new VR. It is just a matter of timing.

IFES: Can they delay the election to accommodate the new VR?

Not without first amending the legal framework governing the electoral process.

IFES: What else does the country need to hold valid elections?

DARNOLF: The election authority, the INEC, needs to re-establish itself as a credible institution. Under the previous leadership, the INEC had serious problems with its credibility because it under-performed and it was not really independent. Things have changed now. We have new commissioners and a new chairman who have the necessary integrity and the potential to build confidence across the political divide. The INEC now needs to be very proactive in working with civil society and the political parties to ensure the potential for trust and confidence materializes. This is pivotal.

There are also a number of new things in the electoral act that puts some requirements on the political parties. For instance, for the first time ever, they need to have primaries to choose their candidates. A lot of the parties are struggling to accommodate this new stipulation and be in compliance with this law. They need to be able to figure this out for the elections to go off smoothly.

IFES: Can you tell us a little about voter education and outreach?

DARNOLF: Voter education is, of course, part of the INEC’s mandate. To date, the INEC has been very focused on the upcoming VR activities. Not until they have nailed down what it will look like and how it will commence will the voter education activities start. I think they are running a bit behind with voter education, but they can still catch up if they start focusing on it. To be able to implement a good voter education campaign, however, they will need to reach out to other entities as they cannot do it all by themselves. They need to reach out to civil society, traditional leaders, religious leaders, and political parties to ensure the other stakeholders are also on board and that they are also informing their respective audiences. This is a huge task that INEC cannot resolve on its own.