The release of the time-table for the 2019 general elections by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) 14 months ahead of the exercise, caught many Nigerians unawares.

It was strange to them, because in the past such schedules are released only months before the polls.

According to the timetable, there are 14 listed activities ranging from when party primaries will be conducted, when candidates’ names should be filed and when campaigns will start and end. 

The 2019 Presidential and National Assembly elections would hold on Saturday, February 16, 2019.

One unique feature about the released timetable is that elections into the chairmanship and councillorship seats of the six Federal Capital Territory Area Councils will hold on March 2, 2019 alongside governorship and state Houses of Assembly polls. 

The timetable was released a day after the commission gave registration certificates to 21 newly registered political parties.

With the issuance, the country now has a total of 68 registered parties with about 90 fresh applications still being processed by the commission.

On Your Marks - Set - Go!

Given that the umpire has blown the whistle, how prepared is the electorate for the Herculean task ahead?

Many observers have welcomed the early release of the time-table, because it will give INEC and politicians ample time to plan and prepare for their exercise.

They have, however, identified some of the issues that may constitute hurdles for the electoral body, if not tackled promptly.

Credible, Peaceful and Successful Polls?

Are there going to be strict adherence to internal party democracy by our political parties? Will there be issue-based campaigns?

Will the voter turnout be high? Will the media reportage be unbiased and professional?

Will our courts be spared of being dragged into determining party candidates? Will the elections hold as scheduled?

In INEC's official report on the last general elections held in 2015, the commission identified nine challenges it faced in the lead up to the polls.

They were:  Rising insecurity in  the North-East of the country, due to insurgency;  looming threats of violence in the elections particularly linked to the intemperate attitude and rhetoric of politicians;  tortuous process of procurement, which could jeopardise timely preparations for elections; non-finalisation of amendments to the electoral legal framework namely, the constitution and Electoral Act; and  inability of the commission to finalise the review of electoral constituencies and creation of new Polling Units.

Others were:  Persistent incapacity of the commission to effectively prosecute electoral offenders to serve as deterrent to those who may plan to engage in electoral malpractices; difficulties of the production and distribution of the Permanent Voter Cards as well as conduct of the CVR exercise; delay in the finalisation of the guidelines for the elections which particularly affected the production of the training manual; and lingering challenges of maximising the impact of voter education.

A critical look at these challenges will reveal that some of them are internal to the electoral management body while others are external to it.

Issues of insecurity, legal reform, hate speech and heating up of the polity are all external to INEC.

Of all these external issues, the most worrisome is that of the legal reforms. 

It is very worrisome that less than 400 days to the next elections, the legal framework for the conduct of the polls remains uncertain.

Will there be reduction in the age to contest certain political offices such as the Presidency, governorship, House of Representatives and state Houses of Assembly as being proposed under the Not Too Young To Run Bill?

Will there be any provision for independent candidacy as was the case in the First Republic and the practice in many other countries?

Will there be electronic voting in 2019? Will it be possible to have a timeline for conclusion of pre-election litigations as is currently with post-election dispute resolution?

Will there be Electoral Offences Commission and Tribunal to effectively prosecute electoral offenders before the next general elections?

For INEC to be able to properly plan for the next general elections, it is imperative for our federal and state lawmakers to expedite actions aimed at concluding the constitution amendment as well as the passage of the proposed new Electoral Act.

On the issues internal to INEC itself, the commission must implement its Strategic Plan and Election Project Plan faithfully.

All issues relating to the functionality of the SmartCard Reader particularly the authentication of the voter’s fingerprint by the device should be resolved before the election.

The commission should also rev up its current Continuous Voter Registration, clean the register of “ghost” names, and ensure prompt delivery of the Permanent Voter Cards.

According to the commission 8 million voters have not been collected since 2015.

Aside these challenges, one other issue that keeps agitating the minds of many is the proliferation of political parties.

Reacting to the proliferation of more political parties, Protem National Chairman of the newly-registered National Rescue Movement (NRM) Sen. Saidu Dansadau, said “if we continue like this, we will end up having a ballot paper in 2019 that is one kilometre long”.

Asking the National Assembly to halt the trend through legislative interventions, he said, “there is no point having political parties that have not won seats – even if it is one Councillorship – in two consecutive elections. They should stand automatically deregistered”.

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