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AFP Cites IRI's Nigeria Poll

March 18, 2011

Millions in Nigeria sign up to vote, but reasons vary
Agence France Presse

LAGOS, NIGERIA − Millions of Nigerians have registered to vote in next month's landmark elections, often sweating out an hours-long wait, but their reasons do not always stem from a yearning to cast ballots.

While a large number of the 73.5 million people registered are no doubt interested in seeing democracy work in a country weary of rigged elections, others say they signed up out of fear of losing government benefits.

A number of state governments have reportedly threatened sanctions, including withholding salaries, against those who did not sign up for a voter's card.

There have even been reports of a church threatening to withhold communion from those without voters' cards.

Zalifa Abdullahi, 31-year-old mother of four in the northern city of Kano, told AFP she wanted a card "for the possibility of government to tie provision of some basic amenities like medical services to possession of voters' cards."

Joyce Aneke, a university student, said she signed up due to rumours that voters' cards would be needed to enroll in the country's mandatory youth training service.

"I do not think that I would vote ... because my vote would not make any difference," she said as she walked home from Rivers State University in the oil hub of Port Harcourt.

"As long as it is the same crop of politicians, the elections are going to be rigged as usual."

Others repeated similar sentiments in Africa's most populous nation, where April elections will serve as a major test of whether Nigeria can organise a credible vote after a series of flawed and violent ballots.

One of the first steps involved putting together an entirely new voter register, with the list used in 2007 riddled with inappropriate names, such as Mike Tyson and Nelson Mandela.

Despite bouts of chaos and violence during the three-week registration process that ended on February 5 for most areas, many analysts say there were considerable improvements over 2007.

A biometric system that scanned the prints of each finger of every potential voter was in place, and elections officials also say they have software to catch double registrations.

President Goodluck Jonathan, running in the April 9 presidential ballot, has pledged a fair vote, which would be a major feat in the west African country long held back by corruption.

But Nigerians have many reasons to doubt such promises, and the sight of lines of people waiting under the sun at a registration centre unable to print cards because it lacks electricity can beg the question of why they go through the effort.

Rose Ekanem, a 29-year-old Lagos food vendor, said she registered for a voter's card "so that I would not be denied if I ask for a government service."

"I am not sure my vote will count, judging by what has happened in the past," she said.

But generalising is never advisable in a country as large and diverse as Nigeria, and some analysts warn that those who register for such reasons are the minority.

They argue that Nigerians are eager for true democracy and want to do their part.
"It would play a small role," said Jibrin Ibrahim, head of the Centre for Democracy and Development. "The facts on the ground are that people are extremely keen to vote."

The appointment of a respected academic, Attahiru Jega, as head of the electoral commission has also spurred hope that this election will be different.

In a recent survey by the International Republican Institute, a US organisation, some 74 percent said they were either somewhat or very confident that this year's vote would be more credible than in 2007.

An organisation called Reclaim Naija has also been holding workshops to educate citizens on the electoral process, explaining to them that their votes can bring about change.

Francis Onahor, an official with the group, said there would certainly be those who registered out of fear or hope for some kind of benefit, but he believed the workshops were having an effect.

It is also not difficult to find those who say they registered with the best of intentions.

"I registered to vote because I'm confident my vote will count this time around," said Bishir Lawan, a 42-year-old trader in Kano.