Jega and our right to vote

Prof. Attahiru Jega

Human suffrage (the right to vote) is so fundamental and inalienable that it has found its way into many constitutions all over the world including ours. For hundreds of years, many and different classes of people, women, blacks etc. fought and died for this right. It is a proprietary and intellectual right as it is a medium of expression of political opinion and thought and it is all a citizen has that should never be taken away from him. Every citizen possesses that right to determine who he wants to govern or represent him. That freedom of expression can be found in Section 39 of the Nigerian constitution.

Mr. Chairman, I will take the liberty even at the risk of boring you to refer to several other provisions of the constitution which I believe you like me swore to defend and which is supreme to any law or guidelines the Independent National Electoral Commission may issue.

Mr. Chairman, it is common knowledge that the issuance of the Permanent Voter Cards for the 2015 elections has been at best shoddy. Many Nigerians stand the risk of not being able to exercise perhaps their most important civic responsibility. The old, young, male, female, rich and poor have cried out on their inability to collect their PVCs for various reasons none of which has anything to do with a failing or negligence on their part but on the part of INEC. It becomes illogical, illegal and even immoral for INEC by its guidelines to attempt to disenfranchise millions of Nigerians who are able, willing and determined to exercise their franchise. Mr. Chairman, all INEC has done is to inadvertently create room for suspicion. The Electoral Act in Section 16(1) states clearly that:

“The Commission shall design, cause to be printed and control the issuance of voters’ cards to voters whose names appear in the register” (emphasis mine).

In other words, the issuance of voter cards to registered voters is mandatory. Beyond the Act itself , let’s examine the provisions of the constitution as they relate to the right to vote. I do this, Sir, to underscore the point that INEC’s directive that only those with the PVCs will be allowed to vote can only pass constitutional muster if the PVCs are available and voters refuse to pick them up.

Section 77(2) of the constitution provides:

“Every citizen of Nigeria who has attained the age of eighteen years residing in Nigeria at the time of registration of voters for the purpose of election to a legislative house shall be entitled to be registered as a VOTER for that election.”

Section 132 (5) of the same constitution also provides:

“EVERY PERSON who is REGISTERED to vote at an election of a member of a legislative house, shall be ENTITLED to vote at an election to the office of PRESIDENT.” (emphasis mine)

I took the pains of regurgitating the provisions of the constitution of which you are all to familiar so as to drive home the simple point that no guideline of INEC can trump the provisions of the constitution as provided in section 1(3) of the constitution which says:

“If any law is inconsistent with the provisions of this constitution, this constitution SHALL prevail, and that other law SHALL to the extent of the inconsistency be void”

Therefore, Sir, I respectfully submit that your guidelines which seek to or have the potential of disenfranchising many Nigerians due to no fault of their own remain void being inconsistent with our constitution. We must stop this incessant penchant of punishing Nigerians for the inefficiency or negligence of government. It happened during the fuel price hike and subsidy crisis and is happening now with the introduction of austerity measures due to economic mismanagement. We must not add this to the comedy of errors. Presently, there are over 30 million Nigerians yet to collect their PVCs, half of the registered number. Indeed, many communities and polling units actually have no records of registration of voters.

To make sure I am not misunderstood, Sir, I will stay just a little longer on the constitution by referring to Section 14 of the constitution which states:

(1)“The Federal Republic of Nigeria shall be a State based on the principles of DEMOCRACY and social justice

(2) It is hereby accordingly declared that

(a)     SOVEREIGNTY belongs to the PEOPLE of Nigeria from whom government through this constitution derives ALL its powers and authority;

(b)     The security…and

(c)     The participation of the people in their government SHALL be ensured in accordance with the provisions of this constitution”

Mr. Chairman, nothing can be clearer than the above provisions. Sovereignty belongs to the people not to the National Assembly, not to the Presidency and not to INEC. You MUST review your guidelines. Nigerians who want to vote must not be stopped but must be encouraged. Democracy in its classic dictionary definition is government of the people, for the people and by the people. This is echoed in Section 14 above. If we disenfranchise and stop people from voting, how can the resultant government be described as by the people and how can ours be described as a democracy?

Never before have we seen Nigerians so energised and eager to vote either for change or for continuity. The most commonly used electoral language today is every vote must count but pray tell how do you count the votes that have not been cast? Surely, the votes must be there before they can be counted.

For your information, I have since last year filed a matter in court for adjudication on the constitutionality and proprietary of your guidelines but I am not confident that the case will be determined before February 14. I have also successfully tabled and argued a motion just a few days ago on the floor of the House of Representatives for a review of your guidelines. However, so as to leave no stone unturned and so as to make assurances double sure, I have decided to appeal directly to your sense of duty and love of country, to do the needful to ensure all eligible Nigerians vote in February and determine whether or not they want change or they want continuity. Let Nigerians take their destiny into their own hands. If you insist on the PVCs, then ALL registered voters must collect their cards before February 14.

I plead passionately on behalf of my constituents, Lagosians and Nigerians and I believe from the little I know of you, I trust you will consider this plea with patriotic zeal and favour.

Gbajabiamila is the Leader of the Opposition, House of Representatives.

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