From Romanus Ugwu, AbujaWith less than 100 days to the 2023 general election, many critical observers wonder whether it is by coincidence or design that every stage of the Continuous Voter Registration (CVR) exercise by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) has been enmeshed in one controversy or the other.For obvious reasons, the furore trailing voters’ registration ahead of next year’s poll is understandable and goes a long way to underscore the indispensability of voters register in the conduct of credible, transparent, and acceptable elections.Since the commencement of the exercise in June last year, if it were not confronted with logistical challenges, evidenced in the deployment of insufficient human and material resources especially at the initial stage of the registration exercise, it would be the alleged complicity of some INEC staff in certain shoddy deals.If it were not attacks and even the killing of the commission’s staff in some parts of the country, especially in the southern zones that forced the management of the electoral umpire to suspend the exercise, it would be alleged accusations of favouring some sections of the country in the deployment of registration materials.In fact, at some certain stages of the registration exercise, the commission even found it difficult to cope with the surge of new registrants, mostly youths trooping into the registration centres to beat various stages of the deadlines set by the commission.It became even more worrisome when all appeals and even legal actions to compel the commission to extend the duration of the registration fell on deaf ears, resulting in the commission suspending the exercise on July 31 after backing its decision with relevant sections in the Electoral Act and court judgment.INEC’s decision to suspend the registration indefinitely was greeted with a torrent of litigations and complaints from Nigerians, raising concerns about fake registration of foreigners and ineligible persons, especially underage ones from certain parts of the country.The unending complaints became even more ferociously hostile following the inability of the commission to complete the physical registration of over seven million eligible Nigerians that enrolled in the online registration out of the over 12 million applications.And angered by the development many considered a deliberate attempt to disenfranchise illegible voters, some Nigerians, numbering over 24, had instituted a lawsuit against the commission. They accused it of “failing to give them and millions of others adequate time and opportunity to complete the voter registration after they had carried out their online registration.”The plaintiffs that sued on behalf of seven million other Nigerians had insisted that they want to “complete the registration process so that they can obtain their Permanent Voter Cards (PVCs), and exercise their right to vote in next year’s election.”In defence, INEC had recently maintained that out of the over 12 million Nigerians that carried out pre-registration online, over nine million of them completed the process of biometric registration at the centres across the country, stressing that only over two million persons failed to complete the process.But in the suit number FHC/ABJ/CS/1662/2022 filed at the Federal High Court, Abuja, the plaintiffs had sought, “an order of mandamus to direct and compel INEC to re-activate its CVR exercise to allow them complete their registration and collect their PVC.”They also sought, “an order of mandamus to direct and compel INEC to provide adequate facilities and deploy personnel to the registration units of the Plaintiffs to enable them complete their registration and collect their PVCs.”Incidentally, the legal action could not achieve the target result as the commission stood its ground in suspending the exercise. Dismissing the allegations of attempts to disenfranchise voters, National Commissioner and Chairman, Information and Voter Education Committee, Festus Okoye, only recently said that: “we have learnt our lessons and I also believe that Nigerians should also learn their lessons too.“This commission was the first in West Africa to introduce online voter registration before going for the biometrics. We created the online platform to shorten the time registrants will spend at our LGA offices. There was adequate publicity that resulted in 30 million Nigerians visiting our portal.“It is not true to claim that the commission disenfranchised seven million people. What happened is that some Nigerians in the Diaspora registered online, thinking that at a certain point, they will return to complete their biometrics. But, most of them did not return.“There are also some Nigerians that started their registration online but abandoned it for physical registration. Don’t forget that the moment you log into our portal once, and log in again, it will show that you have logged in twice and record it as two persons. So, it is wrong to say that the commission disenfranchised anybody,” he explained.Curiously, after overcoming the myriad of legal hurdles, the commission equally faced and battled fresh barrage of attacks and allegations of registering fake persons, especially in Imo State, where certain stakeholders disparagingly accused the commission’s staff of conniving with some desperate persons to pad the voter register.Only last month, Coalition of United Political Parties (CUPP), had raised the alarm and alleged that some persons in connivance with INEC’s staff, have adulterated the voters register for the purpose of plotting to rig elections.Addressing a press conference in Abuja, CUPP spokesperson, Ikenga Ugochinyere, had claimed that the coalition discovered a court case at the Owerri Federal High Court, filed on August 24, 2022, secretly to compel INEC to stop the use of the Bimodal Voter Accreditation System (BVAS).The coalition also displayed extracts of the national voter’s register, claiming that there were at least 10 million fake registrations spearheaded by one of the political parties.It also alleged that names were sourced from within and outside Nigeria, including African countries, such as Ghana, Cameroun, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Togo, Guinea, Gambia, and foreign nations, like Jamaica, Brazil, and New Zealand.It also showed several fraudulent registrations, claiming that they were captured from passport and other photographs, lamenting that more curious about the discoveries in the register was the fact that majority of the foreign names forensically were all born in 1983.As the storm over the allegation was subsiding, the bigger and weightier accusation of the commission favouring certain geopolitical zones and allegedly showing bias in invalidating registrants from other zones, particularly in the South East and South South, resurfaced.A few weeks ago, the commission had come under severe attacks, when its analysis of voter registration data placed the total number of invalid registrants in the two zones at 1,369,713 by the end of its CVR exercise.It also announced that invalid registrants in the South South stood at 859,165 while that of the South East was 510,548. The voter registration analysis further showed 49.3 per cent of the two zones combined accounted for nearly half of all the rejected registrations in the country.According to the document, while other regions had an average rejection rate of 17 per cent, the two geopolitical zones had an unbelievable average rejection rate of 35.2 per cent. It fuelled fears in the South East and South South of INEC lending itself as an easy tool to be used in rigging the 2023 polls in favour of certain regions of the country.In the data analysis, at 1.5 million and 1.4 million completed registrations respectively, the North East and South East had a registration difference of about 100,00, but after cleaning the preliminary register with Automated Biometric Identification System (ABIS), the South East was left with 930,000 additional valid votes, while the North East got 1.3 million.Exasperated by the development, certain concerned stakeholders, especially from the two zones have queried how a greater number of registrants would be invalidated for errors from the South East and South South with high literacy levels than the North West.According to them; “how will INEC convince Nigerians that the zones with such high literacy levels will record more invalid registration than other Northern parts of the country?“It did not add up at all as far as I am concerned because, in the perception of many, it looks like a clinical method to perfect the rigging of 2023 in favour of certain regions of the country. There is just more to it than meets the eyes,” one of them argued.Defending the commission, Okoye blamed the high volume of invalid registrations in some parts of the country on double and multiple registrations due to rumour of possible expiration of PVCs.“Some of these new registrants have done the exercise before but when there were speculations that PVCs can expire, some of them went for fresh registration and that accounted for the high volume of invalid registrations recorded during this CVR,” he noted.The anger in many quarters flamed up after the commission displayed the voter register containing several underage voters mostly from the northern parts of the country.The alleged bias fueled more speculations that the commission has not shown enough diligence to exonerate it and convince Nigerians that it will not be an easy tool for election rigging in favour of certain political parties, in addition to placing one zone in an advantageous position than another.But all these concerns and complaints seem to be a child’s play compared with the uproar trailing the recently displayed voter register containing visible registration infractions. And less than 100 days to the 2023 general elections, claims of double registration and underage voters have dominated its published preliminary voter register, despite repeated assurances to clean up the register and deliver a credible register.Anger has continued to trail the preliminary register, containing 93.5 million registrants, with the name, picture, date of birth, and Voter Identification Number (VIN) of each registered voter. For data protection and security reasons, the commission had concealed from the public information such as biometric details, residential addresses, telephone numbers, and email addresses of voters.The anger was more intense after the assurances from the commission that the list was published after it had carried out a rigorous clean-up of the data using the ABIS, deleting 2.7 million cases of double registration during the last CVR exercise.A review of the register has so far revealed that despite moves by INEC to sanitise the register using ABIS, there are still irregularities, especially among underage voters.Though INEC has urged Nigerians to raise objections against the inclusion of any illegible person or names of dead persons on the register, prominent among the irregularities is the revelation that the list contained registrants with the same name, personal information, and photographs but different VIN.Again, and more curiously, the contentious underage menace equally featured prominently in the recently displayed voters register. Both the Constitution and the Electoral Act of 2022 stipulate that a person must be 18 years and above to be eligible for registration as a voter.Many Nigerians, expressing angst trending on social media, have raised objections over the discrepancies in some of the names on the displayed voter register, arguing that the photographs of some of the registrants do not correspond with their ages.But instead of living in self-denial, the commission admitted that; “some of these likely ineligible entries being found presently confirms the commission’s position that the best way to make the voters’ register more robust is for Nigerians to continue to scrutinise it and, more importantly, make their claims and objections for its improvement.Allaying the fears of many Nigerians, the commission argued that it is not claiming perfection of the voters’ register, appealing to all those who have discovered underage persons or other ineligible persons on the register to take advantage of the “objection” button on the portal and follow the instructions.Rotimi Lawrence Oyekanmi, the Chief Press Secretary to the INEC Chairman, Mahmood Yakubu, who spoke to Daily Sun, said that: “the preliminary register of voters being displayed on our portal is the entire gamut of the register dating back to 2011.“This is the first time in history that INEC will be displaying the preliminary register of voters in this manner. Our action underscores the fact that we are transparent about the whole process. We appeal to all those who have discovered underage persons or other ineligible persons on the register to take advantage of the “objection” button on the portal and follow the instructions.“We have to follow what the law says in cleaning up the register and we appeal to Nigerians not to overlook the fact that all electoral matters are governed by law.“The commission does not claim that the register of voters is perfect. Let me say something that is not yet being considered. We should not rule out the possibility that some of the underage persons being pointed out now might have been registered as far back as 2011 and not in the 2021/2022 CVR process.“Let us assume, for instance, that an underage person, like a 15-year-old, was registered in 2011. That was 11 years ago. That person would have been 26 years old now, well over 18 years prescribed by the law. How do we address this? What does the Electoral Act 2022 say about this? Is the law retroactive?“How do you take out someone who is now over 18 years old from the voters’ register in 2022? Even if you want to prosecute that person for registering as an underage person in 2011, you must still gather your evidence and follow due process in doing so,” INEC argued.