Thursday, December 14, was the deadline for registering about 65 million voters for next year's elections in Nigeria. But with less than one-tenth of voters registered so far, the national electoral commission is widely expected to announce an extension until February 14. With the process so far behind schedule, concerns are growing that the government has not adequately prepared the country for elections.
Keith Jennings is the Nigeria country director for the National Democratic Institute, a non-profit organization that works to strengthen and expand democracies around the world. He says Nigeria's electoral commission, known as INEC (the Independent National Electoral Commission), is far behind and clearly unprepared for the massive undertaking of registering millions of voters.
"Five months out from what is arguably the most important election in the country's history and definitely the most important election in Africa next year, what you have is an environment of uncertainty, growing insecurity among the population, rising political violence and a disastrous voter registration process," says Jennings.
There is a lot at stake in these elections. The presidential ballot will mark the first time an elected Nigerian leader has handed power to another since the country gained independence from Britain in 1960. The current president, Olusegun Obasanjo, who is finishing up his second and last term, brought the end of military rule when he was first elected in 1999.
Given the high stakes, the 2007 elections are being watched closely. With credible allegations of election fraud during the 2003 polls that went all the way to Nigeria's Supreme Court, analysts say the public is demanding a more transparent process.
And this time, the electoral commission said it was committed to making improvements by computerizing the process for the first time ever. INEC ordered some 30,000 registration kits that included computers and cameras to verify people's identity, a process known as direct data capture.
But, so far, only a few thousand machines have been delivered. Chris Albin-Lackey, a Nigeria researcher for Human Rights Watch, says INEC was convinced it could implement this highly ambitious technical process.
"The chairman of INEC was very enthusiastic and very insistent from the beginning that INEC was going to make use of these portable machines that can capture biometric data from people who register and, then, also from voters," says Albin-Lackey. "Basically, the idea being that by using these machines they would vastly reduce the possibility for fraud both in compiling the voter's registry and, then, on election day itself. Because people would have to actually give their thumb print on these machines in order to get a card and, then, when they vote, they would again have to, using their thumb print, prove that they are actually a person who is in the voter registry."
But Albin-Lackey says there have been a host of problems. For instance, of the few machines that actually made it to Nigeria, some broke down and no one knew how to fix them. He adds many election staffers were not given proper training in their use. With so few machines, people have been forced to travel far distances and wait in long lines to register.
With the process falling further behind schedule, even the president himself is worried, according to his spokeswoman, Remi Oyo. "The truth of the matter is that President Olusegun Obasanjo has been concerned about the slow pace of the voter registration and he has been in serious and deep consultations with INEC and members of the national assembly," says Oyo.
Indeed, some legislators have called on the president to fire INEC chief Maurice Iwu, but Obasanjo has said he stands behind the embattled commissioner.
Another reason the government got a late start preparing for the elections is an attempt earlier this year by lawmakers and key political figures beholden to President Obasanjo to change the constitution to allow sitting presidents to seek a third term. The measure failed but it dominated the inner workings of the Nigerian government.
There are also questions about INEC's independence and how much influence President Obasanjo weilds over the commission. Rudy Elbling is a Nigerian-based official with IFES, an international non-profit group that offers technical assistance to developing democracies. He says INEC's independence is an important -- and open -- question.
"We all have to bear in mind that the constitution says that all the INEC chairman plus the commissioners are appointed by the president. How much do they really steer and gear INEC? That is a question we ask ourselves everyday and we do not have an answer to. I mean, it is clear to me that the "system Obasanjo" has some influence, whatever this is -- and there are many shades of gray -- has some influence on the electoral process," says Elbling.
Keith Jennings of the National Democratic Institute agrees it is not clear if Nigeria's electoral process has been intentionally manipulated by the outgoing Obasanjo government. Jennings says whatever the reasons behind the delays, ultimately INEC and the government are directly responsible for the current situation.
"I am pointing the finger at INEC mainly because the government has the primary responsibility. The efforts of civil society are laudable but, at the same time, what you can do is only based on the information that is available. And INEC has not been so forthcoming with available information. Like, how will people actually vote? It is still not clear," says Jennings.
Whatever happens come April 2007, Nigerians will be watching and waiting to see if the promises for a free and fair election this time around will come true.
This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.