Underage Voters: You’ve 90 days to handover officials responsible for prosecution – Court tells INEC

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The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) has been directed by a Federal High Court in Abuja to identify the officials participating in the continuous voter registration (CVR) process in polling places across the nation who registered minors. The deadline for doing so is 90 days.

The offenders must also be produced and turned over to the proper law enforcement organization for an investigation and potential prosecution, according to a ruling by Justice Obiora Egwuatu.

In addition, Justice Egwuatu issued a mandatory order requiring INEC to immediately remove from its national voter registration all names of minor voters from every polling place in the federation that were listed on her website. These names were identified and compiled by the plaintiff and are included in “Exhibit A,” which is attached to the affidavit supporting the original summons.

The judge also issued an obligatory order, requiring the commission to provide the plaintiff with a certified true copy (CTC) of the updated national voter registration list, which includes every Nigerian citizen who is eligible to vote, within ninety days.

Alternatively, he mandated that the electoral umpire post on its website, within ninety days of the decision date, the updated national voters’ register listing every individual eligible to vote in the nation.

Additionally, he provided affirmative answers to all six of the plaintiff’s inquiries.

According to the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN), INEC was sued as the only defendant by the plaintiff, Rev. Mike Agbon, in the originating summons filed on March 17 under the case number FHC/ABJ/CS/367/2023 via his attorney, Desmond Yamah.

In the suit, the plaintiff posed six questions for determination including “whether the defendant is constitutionally, legally and duty bound to conduct credible CVR in the Federal Republic of Nigeria, “Whether the constitution and its enabling statute bind the defendant, the Electoral Act, 2022, to act in strict compliance with the provisions of the constitution and its enabling act.

“Whether by virtue of Section 23 of the Electoral Act, 2022, it is illegal and unlawful for the defendant to have registered underaged i.e. infants and toddlers, during the CVR.

“Whether the admission by the defendant that it has a substantial number of the underaged, illegal and illegible voters published in its voters’ register, exonerates the defendant from any sanction within the ambit of the law for registering underaged as contained in Sections 12 & 23 of the Electoral Act, 2022,” among others.

Agbon, therefore, sought “a mandatory order, compelling and directing the defendant to forthwith within one month to identify, produce and hand its officials that are involved in the registration of the underaged in each polling unit across the federation over for investigation and prosecution by the appropriate law enforcement agency,” etc.

The plaintiff submitted that for many years now, particularly since the country’s return to democratic governance in May 1999, the regrettable issue of lack of credibility of the electoral processes had been a recurring challenge which had greatly distressed the political space.

He said INEC by virtue of the provisions of the Electoral Act, maintains and updates the national voters’ register.

Agbon said prior to the 2023 general elections, the electoral umpire conducted CVR nationwide and displayed the national register of voters on its website between Nov. 12, 2022 and Nov. 25, 2022.

He alleged that upon perusal of the national register of voters, he discovered that the commission registered underaged contrary to the provisions of the Electoral Act, (supra) which clearly described the qualification for registration.

The plaintiff backed his argument with compiled copies from the INEC website of the underage registered and marked it as “Exhibit A.”

He told the court that on Nov. 23, 2022, INEC’s Chairman, Prof. Mahmood Yakubu, at a national stakeholders’ forum on elections organised by the Nigeria Civil Society Situation Room (NCSSR), assured Nigerians that based on the observations of Nigerians, the commission would dutifully clean up the register ahead of the elections.

Agbon said through his lawyer, he made a formal request for the commission to furnish him with the list and names of the underage and ineligible voters but it vehemently refused and ignored the said application.

However, despite being served with court processes and hearing notices in the matter, INEC was neither represented in court nor filed any defence.

Delivering the judgment on Nov. 28 in a certified true copy sighted on Monday by NAN, Justice Egwuatu held that the conditions for qualification to be registered as a voter was stipulated in Sections 77 (2), and 117 (2) of the Constitution and Section 12 of the Electoral Act.

According to him, the common features of these sections are that the voter must be a citizen of and residing in Nigeria and has attained the age of 18 years.

“As I have found earlier in this judgment, the voters registered by the defendant in Exhibit ‘A’ are underage, that is, they have not attained the age of 18 years.

“What this translates into is that the registration officers and an update officer of the defendant failed in their duties to carry out the registration of voters in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution and the Electoral Act,” he said.

Citing provisions of Section 120(1) of the Electoral Act, 2022, he said any officer who acted in breach of his or her official duty committed an offence and would be liable on conviction for a maximum fine of N500,000 or imprisonment for a term of 12 months or both.

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