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Nigeria / Local Councils - 2002-04-19

Nigeria’s Federal and State electoral bodies are at loggerheads over the date for local elections. State officials want the voting to be held on May 18th, shortly before the three-year terms end for local officials. The federal government wants more time to update voters’ registers. Nigeria’s State governments say they will go ahead with local polls scheduled in mid-May, despite objections by the Federal Electoral body, the Independent National Electoral Commission, or INEC.

This prompted the commission to hold a joint meeting during the week with state electoral bodies, the three registered political parties, and the police and state security service. INEC reiterated its objection to the proposed May 18th local polls.

Under the current constitution, the local governments’ mandates will expire on May 29th. In December, parliament extended the tenure of the 774 local government areas until next year. But the Supreme court recent struck down that decision. It ruled that the mandates will expire by the end of May – but it not specify how local governments should be run between then and the 2003 elections. Local governments in Nigeria are responsible for running primary education, street cleaning and other services.

The Supreme Court says states may use their own electoral commissions to organize the local polls. Some say another option might be for governors to appoint interim officials to rule at the local level until next year's elections. The French press agency quotes Governor Segun Osoba of Ogun State as saying he plans a referendum to choose officials to run the local councils. News reports say democracy activists are concerned about official appointments so soon after Nigeria’s return to democracy just three years ago. It’s also not clear if Governor Osoba's plan would be legal.

But the Supreme Court also confirmed the mandate of INEC – at the federal level -- to compile and update voters’ register for all elections, even local ones. The current controversy is mainly over whether the old voters’ register, compiled in 1998, should be updated before voters cast their ballots in the 774 council areas across the country.

INEC favors a fresh voters’ register for all elections. At the joint meeting it said state governments should allow it to compile the register within three to six months – meaning that the elections should be delayed. It says if the voters’ register is not reviewed, many Nigerians who are now qualified to vote but have not registered will be denied the opportunity to take part in local elections.

According to the independent This Day newspaper, INEC Chairman Abel Goubadia says the registration system has been overburdened by as many as 10 million people and also several political associations who are waiting to be added to the current register.

Mr. Goubadia of INEC says the controversy can easily be resolved if the state Houses of Assembly pass laws extending the term in office of the elected council officials. INEC is supported in its views by one of the three registered political parties – the All Peoples Party - APP. But its chairman, Garba Ali Yusuf, says any extension should be limited to three months.

This Day newspaper reported that leaders of the other two political parties, Peoples Democratic Party – P-D-P and Alliance for Democracy AD – support the proposed May 18th date for the local elections. Another paper, The Punch, says the two parties later agreed to a postponement. There has been no official statement yet from the parties.

Analysts say even if the parties support INEC on the need for the shift, they will still need to convince the state governors to change their stand. The governors say the law requires councilors and chairmen to step down at the end of their three-year tenure next month.

The federal Government is reportedly planning to take another tack to persuade the states to delay the election date. At the end of this week’s Federal Executive meeting. Information Minister Jerry Gana said the Council of state will be invited to intervene in the matter. It includes federal executives, state governors and all past heads of state.

Political analysts say if the local election controversy is not quickly resolved through dialogue, it may lead to another round of legal battles. At stake are millions of voters who may be left out of the democratic process -- and new parties seeking registration so they can contest local and other elections.