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The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) surprised Nigerians last week with its early release of dates for the 2019 general elections which are still two years away. According to the agency, the Presidential and National Assembly elections will hold on February 16, 2019 while the governorship and state House of Assembly elections hold on March 2, 2019.
According to INEC’s National Commissioner in charge of Voter Education and Publicity, Mr. Solomon Soyebi, the nation’s presidential/National Assembly elections will now hold on the third Saturday in the February of every election year, which happens to fall on February 16 in 2019.
The decision to hold general elections on a particular day of each election year follows in the tradition of countries such as the United States of America, Mexico, Norway, Sweden and a few African countries such as Ghana, which have fixed days on which they have held their elections over the years. The USA, for instance, has held its presidential elections on the Tuesday following the first Monday in November of every election year since 1848, which is 169 years ago. Ghana, on the other hand, has been holding its presidential poll on December 7 of every election year, since 1996.
The decision of INEC to have fixed days for our general elections is welcome. The dates fixed fall within the provision of Section 132 of the Nigerian Constitution that the elections hold not earlier than 150 days, and not later than 30 days to the end of the tenure of the incumbent. Since the tenures of the president, governors and legislators end on May 29 of any election year, and the dates chosen by INEC for the polls fall within the 150 days stipulated in the Constitution, we believe the decision of the agency is in order.
Having fixed days for our general elections will bring some certainty to election dates in the country, and help firm up preparations for the exercise. It will also make it impossible for incumbent presidents to change the election dates to their own advantage.
We recall that the decision of the immediate past President Goodluck Jonathan administration to change the dates of the 2015 general elections just a few weeks to the exercise led to insinuations that the decision was taken to improve his chances of winning the election. It is in Nigeria’s interest that incumbent presidents are not allowed to change the dates of elections.
Now that the election dates have been fixed, it is imperative that INEC takes advantage of it to get fully prepared for the polls. Every arrangement that the agency has to make to ensure that the polls are successful should be commenced now. With the dates already known, this is the time for the agency to begin to perfect its arrangements on the production of materials that it would need for the polls.
For instance, the experience that the nation had with the production and printing of voter cards in the 2015 polls was embarrassing. Many registered voters failed to get their voter cards and the collection of cards was still ongoing 24 hours to the poll. This scenario that occured during Prof. Attahiru Jega’s leadership of INEC should not be allowed to recur in 2019. All other logistics of the exercise should be fine-tuned, and arrangements for electoral materials properly set out and perfected at the appropriate time. There should be no reason for the agency to be running around at the last minute for elections whose dates were announced two years earlier.
The decision of INEC to be proactive on the matter of the election dates should reflect on all other aspects of the polls. There should be no tardiness on the matter of electoral materials like we had it some years ago when it led to postponement of some elections midway. The matter of the card readers should also be resolved. The electoral register should be fine-tuned. This is the time for the agency to also perfect all the issues on the register of voters.
There have, however, been some arguments in some quarters that the early release of the election dates is premature as it may lead to early politicking over the 2019 polls and undue focus on politics, while attention of the government may shift from governance. This is not necessarily so as politicking is already in the air in the country.