Sitting on the dusty steps of his local chief’s house, Cyrus Edo is spending his third consecutive day trying to register to vote in Nigeria’s upcoming elections.
Africa’s most populous nation is compiling a new voter register ahead of presidential, parliamentary and state governorship elections in April, a mammoth task which is key to ensuring the vote is more credible than past polls.
The electoral commission says close to 60 million people had registered by last Saturday, but it won a one-week extension to register an estimated 10 million more to ensure that the entire electorate will be able to cast their votes, Reuters reports.
“I’ve been coming here for about three days now. I come at about 10 am and wait until 12 pm because I have to go to work,” says Edo, who works in an upmarket patisserie in a business district of Lagos, Nigeria’s financial capital.
“Every day there are delays,” he says near his home in Aja, a warren of dirt paths where children play amongst rubbish on the edge of the city.
“Some people just give up, as they wait for so long.”
The head of the election commission (INEC), Attahiru Jega, has said new technology will ensure the sort of fraud at past elections — when the electoral roll included “Nelson Mandela”, “Michael Jackson” and “Mike Tyson” — will be impossible.
Some 120,000 electronic voter registration kits, including laptop computers, fingerprint scanners, cameras and printers, have been deployed across the country since mid-January.
Most registration centres are impromptu affairs.
The kit is laid out on a plastic table under the shade of trees by the side of the road, guarded by one or two policemen. At the better organised centres, market women have laid out benches where those waiting can rest.
The process has not been glitch-free. Fingerprint scanners were initially set to such a high level of forensic precision it took an hour to register each person, leading many to give up. The machines have since been reset.
Voters’ details are recorded, their photos taken and all ten fingers are supposed to be scanned. They should immediately receive a laminated plastic card with a unique barcode.
That has not always been the case. Project 2011 Swift Count, a joint election observation initiative set up by several local civil society groups, said that at 21 percent of registration centres temporary voter cards were not issued straight away as they should be.
But it noted the commission had worked quickly to overcome problems in most areas.
The process has been plagued by accusations of poor organisation in the country of 150 million. Faulty machines, too few machines, and Nigeria’s intermittent electricity supply — a great irony of Africa’s largest oil and gas producer — have all caused problems. The commission was given an 88 billion naira budget in August to compile the list. Yet registration teams say they are even low on the ink and plastic needed for an estimated 70 million cards.
“In some areas you have one machine for (thousands) of people. They come out as early as 4am to queue,” says Francis Onahor, a member of Reclaim Naija, an activist group that has set up a live online map of trouble spots.
There have also been attempts to manipulate the list. A local government councillor and member of the ruling People’s Democratic Party in Bayelsa state, in the oil-producing Niger Delta, was arrested last week for using kits to illegally register voters at a private residence.
Some are finding ways to work around the problems. “We took our own money to buy generators so that people would not queue,” says Murisuku Ojukon, the traditional ruler of Aja. “If you wait for the federal government to help, you will be stranded.”
Ojukon says his community clubbed together to buy 12 small generators that cost 15,000 naira each. One registration stall has been set up on his porch. Young voters — like Edo the pastry chef — return day after day in the hope of registering, despite near static queues. Some pay to laminate their cards themselves after registering.
“I have to register,” says 27-year-old Edo. “This is part of the development of my country.”