As the dates for the general elections draw nearer, many issues continue to come up for discussion in a bid to ensure that nothing is left to chances in conducting successful polls in the country.
However, some Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), such as those incarcerated in prisons and those relocated to other areas of the country, are often excluded from the exercise, thus denying them the right to choose who rule them. Under the democratic rule, voting at elections remains the only way through which citizens can elect their representatives. Section 77 (2) of the 1999 Constitution specifically grants every citizen, who has attained the age of eighteen years and reside in Nigeria at the time of the voter’s registration such privilege while the Electoral Act under Section 12 (1) also stipulates other conditions that allow eligible voters to present themselves for registration and other electoral activities.
A recent and disturbing report informs that with about 3.3 million IDPs, Nigeria has the largest population of persons displaced by conflicts in Africa. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance (UNOCHA), disclosed that no fewer than 300,000 people in Adamawa, Borno and Yobe states, consisting of 70 percent of children and women, had since fled their homes. In different parts of the country, communal clashes and related violence have made many people to flee their homes and abandoning their properties. The report showed that 470,500 persons were displaced in Nigeria in 2013, placing it as the third with the highest number of displaced persons in the world, ranking behind Colombia with 5.7 million and Syria’s 6.5 million.
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees also put the figure of IDPs in the Northeast at 650,000. It revealed further that there were 258, 252 babies and minors, 207, 583 women and 147, 894 men in the various camps across the federation.
However, statistics by the National Commission for Refugees, Migrants and Internally Displaced Persons (NCFMIDS), indicated that internal conflicts had displaced about 470, 565 people, while 143,164 people were displaced because of natural disasters across the country last year. The statistics, which covered a period of January 2013 to February 2014, pointed to the fact that Borno State leads with 196, 337 persons while Nasarawa followed with 24, 947. The commission added that 24 states already had IDPs; of which 470, 565 of the IDPs from 21 states arose from conflict situation; while a total of 143, 164 displaced persons in 14 states resulted from nature-induced disasters.
Similarly, the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) indicated that between January and March 2014, more than three million Nigerians faced humanitarian problems caused by insurgency in three endemic states resulting in many deaths and displacement of about 250, 000 people.
Available statistics from the Nigeria Prisons Service (NPS) indicate that not all the inmates may have actually committed acts of misdemeanour. For instance, out of the 56,785 inmates currently in the 239 prisons across the country, only 18,042, representing 32 per cent are convicted prisoners, while a larger number of about 38,743 inmates, representing 68 per cent are Awaiting Trial Persons (ATP).
The truth is that many imprisoned persons are innocent of what they’re being punished for making it imperative for proper reformation, rehabilitation and integration. What it means is that these high number of inmates is quite significant to influencing the outcome of elections. Politicians should not be allowed to manipulate the voting power of IDPs to their advantage.
That is why the assurance given by Professor Attahiru Jega, Chairman of the Independent Electoral Commission (INEC), is soothing when he said IDPs would be allowed, under the current dispensation, to exercise their civic rights. The INEC boss also promised to do everything humanly possible to ensure that the affected persons were not disenfranchised. As a step forward in realising this goal, a task force was constituted by INEC and the terms of reference include examining the legal, political, security and administrative challenges in achieving IDPs voting during elections. It was also expected to review the experiences of other jurisdictions in dealing with the challenges of IDPs voting.
The judgment of the Federal High Court in Benin further gives hope to many prison inmates just like what obtains in other nations such as the United States of America whereby inmates are allowed to vote in some of the states, although the voting rights of prison inmates may not be fully exercised, going by the fact that INEC did not capture them during the last registration of voters exercise. It should, however, begin to prepare adequately for subsequent elections. But for the March 28 and April 11 elections, the government should, as a matter of urgency and priority, ensure that the necessary logistics are put in place to enable all eligible IDPs cast their vote without forgetting the aftermath of the 2011 elections, where innocent youth corps members were massacred alongside countless other innocent bystanders.