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January 18, 2011

Delays in Nigerian Voter Registration Spark Calls to Extend Deadline

by Scott Stearns

Frustration is growing over delays in Nigeria's voter registration and some governors are calling on the electoral commission to extend the deadline.

The biggest problem so far is with the electoral commission's Direct Data Capture machines, which are meant to integrate laptops, cameras, fingerprint scanners, and printers to produce voter cards on site.

Some electoral workers said the machines they were trained on are not the machines they are using now. The electoral commission said some laptops do not have sufficiently upgraded software, and technicians are now making those corrections in the field.

National Electoral Commission Chairman Attahiru Jega said the scale and complexity of registering more than 70 million eligible voters is like nothing Nigeria has ever seen. But he is confident the process is improving.

"We are working in 120,000 polling units nationwide," said Jega. "We have to deploy men and materials to these places, and we have to ensure that the processes commences on time. Naturally there have been tremendous challenges in many places, as many of you are aware - men and materials do not actually arrive on time."

Philomena Okpukoko waited two hours at her registration center before officials told her to write her name on a list and come back the next day. When she did, the scanner was not working.

"It is not encouraging because it is wasting our time," said Okpukoko. "Many people stopped their work to come and register, but when they reach here, the chance is not there for them to register."

Asemo Solomon said he has come every day since the registration began Saturday, and he is still waiting. "They can register three people in a day. It is a problem. Three people for a day is a problem. How do you think they can register millions of people in only 14 days?

"There must be an extension, otherwise they will never register anything. There must be extension. Without that, even half of Delta can not be registered. Even half of Nigeria can not be registered."

Rivers State governor Chibuike Amaechi agrees that the Independent National Electoral Commission - or INEC - must agree to extend the registration deadline.

"We must have an extension of time because the process is rigorous and it is time consuming," Amaechi. "And patience is key: patience on the side of INEC and patience on the side of the voters."

But INEC chairman Jega said it is premature to discuss extending the registration deadline. "I want to ask Nigerians to be patient with us, because once things have not been deployed to some polling units, some people have already concluded that the exercise has failed."

It is not just technical problems that are confronting the registration. Some Muslim leaders are threatening to take Jega's commission to court because women are being forced to unveil their faces for voter card photographs.  

Nigeria's Muslim Rights Concern said that violates women's freedom of religion, as it says women who agree to uncover their faces are registered, but those who refuse to remove their hijab are turned away.