It is important that this time INEC engages sufficiently in consultations with all stakeholders so that they understand what the process is all about. They need to clearly understand the importance of access – the challenges that voters and, indeed, the Electoral Commission experiences during elections, due to declining access to polling units.
One of the realities of Nigeria is that every administrative decision or process is read and understood as being political. Currently, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) is once again trying to update its polling units, after previous attempts failed. Each earlier attempt was sabotaged by controversies, with politicians from each State, zone and region staking claims that there should have been more of the new polling units created on the principle of “equal sharing.” When they perceive that they might be “short-changed”, they quickly develop conspiracy theories to discredit the effort. The underlying utility of the exercise never succeeds in getting a voice.
Polling units are central to the electoral process, as that is the location where people are able to exercise their suffrage. The Electoral Act 2010 (as amended) defines a polling unit (PU) as “the place, enclosure, booth, shade or house at which voting takes place under this Act”. Consequently, polling units (PUs) constitute the basic structure of Nigeria’s electoral system and democracy. They are the nerve centres at which voters contact the Commission during elections. As such, it is exceedingly important that polling units are not only ready and conducive to receive voters, but that they are also well-organised and secure for the set of activities that occur in them on election day. Indeed, well-organised and efficiently run polling units are emblematic of the quality of the entire election ecosystem.
There are 84 million voters in Nigeria using about 120,000 polling units, with an additional 56,000 “baby” units created alongside excessively large ones. Nigeria has clear principles that determine the location of polling units. Each unit is supposed to have at most 500 registered voters, so that voting can end before darkness sets in. They are located close to where people live, as Nigeria is one of the few countries in the world where vehicles are not allowed on the road on election day. Everyone should feel they have no impediment to going to the polling unit, as such places of worship, houses of politicians or prominent individuals are excluded, and schools, in particular, are usually selected as neutral grounds where all voters will feel at ease.
…because of inadequate polling units, many people have to travel long distances to vote on election days. All these have contributed to low voter turnout at elections, the egregious violation of election regulations and guidelines, violence and insecurity. Crowding at polling units also constitute health and safety issues in this period of the global COVID-19…
According to INEC, over the years, the access of voters to polling units in Nigeria has been declining. For the 2019 General Elections, the average number of voters per polling unit was about 700 nationally, rising to over 2,000 in the Federal Capital Territory, while a specific PU in Nasarawa State had over 15,000 voters. Furthermore, some polling units are located in very difficult places that do not encourage voters to participate in elections, particularly persons living with disability. Others are located in places experiencing conflict or under the control of partisan actors. Moreover, because of inadequate polling units, many people have to travel long distances to vote on election days. All these have contributed to low voter turnout at elections, the egregious violation of election regulations and guidelines, violence and insecurity. Crowding at polling units also constitute health and safety issues in this period of the global COVID-19 pandemic.
The current number of PUs, which is 120,000, was determined in 1996 and since then, massive demographic changes have occurred in the country, as the population grows and the process of rural-urban migration continues. Our cities have grown enormously over the period and places that were villages outside the city are now part of the urban conglomeration, with large populations and no polling unit close to them. As INEC had planned, over the years, to expand polling units, this had been blocked politically, and the Commission had resorted to stopgap measures such as the creation of “Baby Polling Units”, voting points and voting point settlements to address the issue.
One of the problems around previous efforts had been that proposals for expanding PUs had usually been made just before general elections, when people were primed to believe conspiracy theories. This time, INEC has decided to commence the process early so that, hopefully, 2023 considerations would not be central to the process. The key problems are, as follows. First, there is the problem of the inadequate number of polling units available to voters due to the transformation of our population dynamics. Second, the inadequacy of polling units, implying that many of them are overcrowded during elections, which is a recipe for delays, disruptions, violence and apathy. To be sure, overcrowding varies from one area to another due to the uneven growth in population. Still, practically all polling units have experienced the increased population of voters. Third, the location of some of the PUs make access very difficult. For instance, some are located in very physically inaccessible locations, particularly for persons living with disability.
In Nigeria, politicians believe that polling units in their constituencies confer political advantages, so they want more. Of course they may know something I don’t know but voting is a game of numbers, and as long as the register is accurate, it does not matter how many are “allocated” to the constituency, in terms of votes available to be obtained.
In 2014, in the build-up to the 2015 general elections, the Commission proposed the “creation and distribution” of an “additional 30,027 new Polling Units”. This was with the objective of decongesting overcrowded polling units and dispersing voters as evenly as possible to prevent disruptions, delays and violence on election day. Furthermore, the exercise was aimed at a spatial distribution of voters, the relocation of polling units from unsuitable places to more suitable places, and the location of PUs within the reasonable commuting distances of voters. INEC however gave up the proposal after a series of attacks against it – that it was engaging in a: “disproportional distribution of Polling Units in Nigeria aimed at fostering the dominance of one section of the country over the others for political advantage.”
In Nigeria, politicians believe that polling units in their constituencies confer political advantages, so they want more. Of course they may know something I don’t know but voting is a game of numbers, and as long as the register is accurate, it does not matter how many are “allocated” to the constituency, in terms of votes available to be obtained. Be that as it may, politicians always canvass for more polling units, even when they are not necessary in terms of the population size. They see them as an “allocation” of a public good and always fight for more. As a result of this over-politicisation, the Electoral Commission has been unfairly accused of being partial and lopsided in allocating PUs among sections of the country. In the build-up to the 2015 election, the allegation was that more polling units were to be allocated in the North, relative to the South, and that was the issue. The land area, the huge agglomerations that have developed in and around Abuja, most of which had very few or no polling units, never entered the debate.
It is important that this time INEC engages sufficiently in consultations with all stakeholders so that they understand what the process is all about. They need to clearly understand the importance of access – the challenges that voters and, indeed, the Electoral Commission experiences during elections, due to declining access to polling units. Secondly, it is important to dissociate the process with the suspicions Nigerians have that population figures are always invented. Abuja was created forty years ago and the evidence of massive population inflows into the area, of millions of Nigerians from all States, should be obvious. The Lagos-Ogun zone has also had huge population inflows due to its economic dynamism, and the creation of more polling units in the area is not a political allocation but a vital need to allow all citizens the opportunity to exercise their franchise.
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