On 20 December 2020, Nigerians woke up to the news of plans by the Nigerian Senate to amend the electoral laws and allow married underage girls to vote.
“The joint committee has proposed that if a lady who is not up to 18 years is married, she should be considered to be mature enough and be eligible to vote,” said Senator Kabiru Gaya from the northern state of Kano.
Reports say in states that permit underage marriage, girls who come to register to vote with babies on their backs are automatically allowed to do so since there are hardly ever records of age.
The move to amend the electoral law was therefore seen as an attempt to officially legalise a common practice.
Also, Kano State, where Senator Gaya comes from, is known as the largest vote bank in the country. It delivered a record 1.9 million votes to President Muhammadu Buhari in 2015. That election also witnessed high underage voting as seen in viral photographs and videos.
In the local council election in Kano State in 2018, there were videos of children voting. In one of the videos, a young boy who appears to be between the age of 11 and 13, at Gwazaye polling unit, Kumbotso Local Government Area, is seen fixing his thumbprint against a party logo while other children struggle to receive their ballot papers.
However, protests from rights groups forced the Nigerian Senate to shelve its plan. But this was just a temporary setback for the promoters of underage voting, it seemed.
Deregistration of voters
INEC subsequently commenced voter registration in June 2021 and ended it a year later. After the registration of more than 12.2 million new voters, INEC decided to do what it called a clean-up of the register.
The commission said it was able to spot more than 2.7 million double registrations and then deleted them, bringing the new figure to 9.5 million.
However, the statistics on deregistered voters as released by INEC raised suspicions among southern voters in a country deeply divided by ethnicity and religion.
The figures released showed that of the 10 states with the highest number of deregistered voters, nine are southern states while only one – Kano – is a northern state.
Bayelsa, which has the lowest number of voters in the country, ironically had the highest number of deregistered voters. The oil-rich state in southern Nigeria had 307,513 new voters deregistered out of the 444,652 new voters, meaning at least 69.2 per cent of new voters have been disqualified in the state.
Others that had a high rate of deregistered voters are: Ebonyi (240,063), Rivers (156,2017), Delta (153,679), Kano (99,285), Anambra (95,835), Osun (94,379), Akwa Ibom (91,098), Lagos (80,728) and Cross River State (77,020).
After ‘cleaning up’ the voter register, INEC posted the full list of all voters in each local ward where such registration had taken place and asked residents to make objections or claims to any of the faces on the register. INEC also did something it had never done before.
It uploaded a full list of all 93.5 million voters on its website and asked Nigerians to look through the list and assist with a further cleanup of the register.
The inspection by the public, however, revealed many startling details. The pictures attached to the names showed some of the people registered are actually children as young as six.
A preliminary inspection showed many of these children were registered in northern states. Before long, the pictures of these children had flooded Twitter, with many alleging that there was a grand scheme to give the north an undue advantage.
But Festus Okoye, a Spokesman for INEC, says the electoral officials who registered such underage children will be prosecuted.
Okoye adds that some of the registrations of underage voters were done years ago and are only being spotted now. He, however, called on Nigerians to continue to identify such underage voters so that they can be removed.
“We agree that the register is not perfect and that is why we have displayed it for objections,” he says.
“We did manual adjudication to remove underage people. Apparently, there are still obviously underage persons on the voter register and we expect Nigerians to assist the commission in pointing out some of these persons.”
Groups set for protests
Outraged by the preponderance of underage voters on the register, some rights groups and political parties are set to stage protests at the INEC head office.
“The campaign is marching to INEC Headquarters tomorrow on voter advocacy and to push for INEC to clean up its system and ensure free and fair elections,” tweeted Ndi Kato, a spokesperson for Peter Obi’s campaign.
Activist, Rinu Oduala, said on Twitter that the revelation had shown that some political parties were not ready for a free and fair poll.
Based on INEC’s timetable, it has just one week left to clean up the register before printing voters’ cards, an indication that some of these underage voters may escape scrutiny.
This has triggered the #INECCleanup and #INECFixup campaign on Twitter which has garnered thousands of engagements.
No easy task
Speaking to The Africa Report, a former INEC national commissioner, Prof. Lai Olurode, said it would be difficult to stop a child from voting once he has been given a voters’ card.
“The new technology INEC prevents a person from voting more than once but where an underage person has been allowed to register and that underage person has a valid voter’s card, I don’t think you can stop them from voting,” Olurode said.
He said the electoral umpire lacks a mechanism for determining the age of a voter at the point of registration and this has contributed to the rise in underage voting.
The election monitoring group, YIAGA Africa, said in a statement there was an urgent need for INEC to remove underage voters to boost voter confidence.
On underage voting, YIAGA stated, “We call on the commission to, as a matter of urgency, address some of the concerns that have been raised”.
In a statement INEC said it was looking into the infractions with a view to punishing its errant officials that registered underage voters.
INEC noted that the fact that it displayed the voter register on its website was evidence that it was willing to ensure a transparent and free election next year.
“The commission cannot rule out infractions by its registration officials in allowing these ineligible persons into the register in the first place. Therefore, each confirmed case of infraction will be thoroughly investigated and culpable officials will be disciplined” it said.
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