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Logistical Glitches Mar Nigeria's Voter Registration

Just about two million of Nigeria's estimated 70 million eligible voters have been registered under a process that began in October. A shortage of registration machines is impeding the high-tech plan to deliver credible elections as Gilbert da Costa in Abuja reports for VOA.

The Independent National Electoral Commission, known as INEC, has designated 120,000 locations to register eligible Nigerian voters.

The task of registering up to 70 million voters from scratch appears quite daunting at this point with only two million Nigerians registered since the exercise began on October 14.

Even the Nigerian president is worried; a fact conveyed by 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 and as today, the president has the assurances of INEC that in the next couple of days more than 75 percent of the equipment that is needed to do the voter registration will be in place, in different parts of the country," said Oyo.

About 30,000 registration kits that include computers and cameras were ordered, and only a couple of thousand machines have been delivered, forcing voter officials to deploy them sparingly among registration centers.

A drive around central Abuja Saturday did not yield a single functioning registration point. With a December 14 deadline looming, opposition parties and civil society groups are fearful the whole election process could be under threat.

Maxi Okwu is the leader of a coalition of 14 small opposition parties.

"With this voter re-registration, it appears something is lurking. One is that the machines seem to be collapsing all over the place," said Okwu. "They are not capturing the data as fast as they ought to. And the machines do not seem to coping with the pressure of work."

"I hope they do everything to ensure that the machines are in place as they promised," continued Okwu. "Because if that exercise fails, that is the end of the whole exercise, we cannot have elections."

INEC says electronic registration will minimize vote rigging in a country with a history of election fraud and political violence.

Electoral commission chief, Maurice Iwu, says the logistical problems are a small price to pay in the drive to deliver a clean election.

"We are getting it right. For the first time, we have the courage to challenge our past," noted Iwu. "For the first time, it will be strictly, strictly one man, one vote. Nobody said change is easy. Nobody said it is going to be a walk-through. If it was that easy why has it not been done before? There are challenges, there are problems, but they are solvable."

Nigerians are due to elect their president, state governors and lawmakers in polls that should mark the first democratic handover to a new government since Africa's most populous country gained independence in 1960.

The leader of a British parliamentary group that is visiting Nigeria, John Robertson, has this advice on how to deal with the mounting difficulties with registering voters.

"Obviously, the problem at the moment is registration, everybody says that. And it is a genuine problem because I know from what people tell me, how long it takes," said Robertson. "Having said that, you still have the registration from the previous elections, add that to what they are getting now and what they will get between now and the close of the registration, then I believe they have to go with that. I do not think they have any choice. The most important thing is the election."

With Nigeria's many political parties in the process of selecting candidates for the April vote, there is at least as much anxiety about the future as excitement.