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Voting In Lagos

 

 

 

By Christy Aikhorin

 

 

On Saturday, the 14th of April 2007, Nigerians went to the polls to vote in gubernatorial and provincial legislative elections.

 

I finally got to vote for my Lagos state gubernatorial candidate, but it was not funny, and I guess it would be same for most Lagosians, and perhaps most Nigerians. I decided to take a walk to the polling station, which meant walking for 45 minutes—driving during the election was restricted to essential services. I didn't mind though, since the polling station was in Ikoyi (the same part of Lagos where I happen to live) and I at least had my iPod to keep my company.

I thought I would come across others going to cast their votes, but to my disappointment, a large number of the people I saw on the streets happened to be idling around or sitting in front of the houses around, enjoying some of nature's fresh air. Most of these people were security personnel, some of whom made fun of the entire electoral process with remarks such as "madam you dey go vote? (madam, are you going to vote?)" and "no okada for you today? (aren't there commercial motorcycles to take you to the polling station?)" and "why you dey waste your time? (why are you wasting your time going to vote?)"

I was informed that one had to go to the particular polling station where one had registered during the voters registration exercise early this year. On getting there—this polling station happened to be one of the houses of the incumbent governor of Lagos state, Bola Tinubu, something I didn't know till today—there happened to be no INEC (Independent National Electoral Commission) officials present and I directed elsewhere, a few blocks away.

Got there but there were no INEC officials either. They were about arriving, according to a man I met. This was about 10 am, and in all honesty I was quite displeased. Voting was meant to have started by 8 am, causing me to think that I was actually too late when I arrived and met no officials. Nigerian society certainly has some way to go when it comes to keeping to time. I decided to be patient and join the other voters in what seemed like a perpetual wait, having decided to start heading back home should the officials fail to show up by 11 am.

At about 10.30 am, the first INEC officials arrived. They gave a lame excuse about transportation, as the reason for being late, and started setting up for the voting process. Under normal circumstances, these officials should have been prepared way before 8 am. But the situation in Nigeria appears far from normal, as a lot of things are often taken for granted. The general population is expected to suffer, rather than expect good service from the government.

Voting was conducted outdoor, under a tree. Thanks to God, the weather chose to cooperate with the electoral officials, as it did not rain. Two transparent plastic bags were set up for collecting the votes, one for the gubernatorial candidate and the other for the Lagos state assembly candidate (i.e. the candidate for the state legislature). Two rather young ladies were the INEC officials responsible for conducting the elections. There were also two tired looking security men and a number of other INEC officials. I could not place what the other INEC officials were actually there for, though some were said to be observers.

Before voting commenced, we were informed that the polling centre was unit 20, and only those who had this number on their registration slip could vote here. We all started looking for the numbers on our voting slips. I managed to locate the number that was being referred to—it was the delimitation number, and mine read LAGOS/08/09/020. The 20 at the end meant I was at the right place but would only find out if that was absolutely true if my name could be located on the registration list collected during the registration exercise in February 2007.

In no time, a queue had formed. There was a single line and fortunately, I was one of the first 40, since I got there before the INEC officials arrived. The queue grew longer in just a short while. Thanks to mobile phones, which every Lagosian seems to possess these days, people were informed that the INEC officials had arrived. Apparently many people had come and gone earlier, when no INEC officials could be found.

After about 30 minutes, I realized that I had not moved an inch on the line and nobody had cast a vote. I had to figure out what was wrong. To my embarrassment, the procedure required that each person presented his or her registration slip to the two INEC officials, who then searched for such a person's data (i.e. registration number) on the registration list.

 

Now, the list consisted of about 50 pages. Individuals' data were not arranged serially (i.e. by registration number), though I later found out that they were arranged alphabetically. The INEC officials had completely ignored using surnames for identifying voters. They had been 'wisely' instructed, by the powers that be, to use only the serial numbers. That explained why we, the voters, were practically at a standstill on the queue.

Voters started getting frustrated and agitated. Some voters starting jumping the queue, prompting the security men to restore order. A number of voters suggested a different means to locating individuals' data on the registration list. These included calling out the names of voters, or getting some volunteers to help out, or sticking the registration list up where more people could locate their names faster. However, the two 'smart' INEC ladies said they had to do it the way they had been instructed.

It would be an understatement to say that I was perplexed by the insistence of the INEC officials to stick to instructions—for I was shocked. But then, whomever it was that gave such instructions must have been myopic! For what was the essence of capturing voters registration data electronically during the registration exercise, if it was not to be used in a smart way? Where was technology being applied in the voting exercise?

 

Why does the system in Nigeria choose to frustrate and punish people on the basis of 'orders from above', while other countries seek means of making life easier for their citizens? I was beginning to wonder if I was actually living in the 21st century and if the entire voting exercise would be fair.

The first vote was cast about an hour and a half after the INEC officials arrived. At this time, there were over 500 voters on the queue, which was growing by the minute. One of the male voters commented that it was due to the large population that things appeared unworkable in Nigeria. I chose to disagree with him. Planning, organization and dissemination of information were all that was lacking today. Even if there happened to be only 10 voters on the queue, poor logistics, organization and planning, as one saw in this exercise, would have resulted in an inefficient and complex voting process.

In addition to that, if the INEC officials happened not to be properly trained they would have to work extra hard to get simple things done. This would in turn result in unkind words and insults from agitated voters. On my part, I was deeply disappointed with all the 'noise' INEC had made about being ready for the election process. Come to think of it, I dread to imagine what the presidential election would look like!

Patience became the watchword of the day as votes were cast at a snail's pace. I could, at least, be hopeful of voting before the exercise ended. But each time I thought that a Professor was the head of INEC, I wondered if he was personally responsible for the instructions the INEC officials were adhering to, which made the voting process painfully slow.

 

At a point in time, a certain old lady walked to the front of the queue and begged to be allowed to cast her vote, as she was tired of waiting. Most people on the line agreed—respect for the elderly runs very deep in Nigerian society, even in Lagos, which seems to have its own character. Must say I was deeply impressed that despite the frustrating circumstances, people still knew they had to respect the aged. The old lady was allowed to beat the queue and vote.

There was a certain lady just ahead of me on the queue. Unfortunately, her name could not be found on the registration list, though she had the number 20 on her slip—meaning she ought to be able to vote at this polling center. She had to leave without voting, after having queued for almost 2 hours! I was next and got the weird feeling that my name might not be on the registration list too. After searching for a while with the INEC officials, I came close to giving up on the fact that my name had been captured in their so-called database.

Fortunately though, I spotted my photo on the registration list and indicated this to one of the INEC officials. I then had my left thumb coated with a marker and was given two voting slips, through which I was to choose my candidate and party for governor and general assembly respectively via finger prints.

I made one last effort and asked the INEC officials to reconsider changing the method being used to locate voters on the registration list. I requested that they consider using surnames, which were arranged alphabetically as against voters' registration numbers, which weren't serially arranged. In this way, more people would be able to vote, for there were so many people on the queue. My request was simply ignored.

I located the candidate whom I wanted to become the next governor of Lagos state—by the way his photo didn't even feature on the voting slip I was given, and he wasn't the only one whose photo didn't appear! I knew both his name and political party but thought of illiterate Lagosians, who could only ever get to identify their candidates via pictures. INEC should have done more to ensure that the pictures of all candidates, and not just some, appeared on the voting slips.

The moment I cast my vote, I felt a sigh of relief. I had just witnessed and participated in the first phase of a process aimed at selecting political leaders in Nigeria for the next four years.

 

I was left wondering though, if my vote would really be counted, if all the other voters still on the queue would find their names and get to cast their votes, if my effort would make any difference and if it was worth it at all. Notwithstanding, I left with the knowledge that I had fulfilled my civic duty, albeit a rather stressful duty. The voting process had gone just like most other events in Nigeria: little planning, poor preparation and virtually no thought for the people.

 

Christy Aikhorin writes from Lagos. With thanks to Chippla Vandu blogging as Chippla.

 

Picture: Courtesy of the BBC

 

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