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Alleged underage voters: Court gives INEC 90 days to handover officials responsible for prosecution

A Federal High Court in Abuja has ordered the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to identify, within 90 days, its officials involved in the registration of the underage during the continuous voters’ registration (CVR) exercise in polling units across the country.

Justice Obiora Egwuatu, in a judgement, also directed the culprits to be produced and handed over to the appropriate law enforcement agency for investigation and possible prosecution.

Justice Egwuatu equally made a mandatory order, compelling INEC to expunge forthwith from its national voters’ register the names of all the underage voters from each of the polling unit across the federation published on her website as identified and compiled by the plaintiff in
“Exhibit A” attached to the affidavit in support of the originating summons.

The judge further made a mandatory order, compelling the commission to furnish the plaintiff with a certified true copy (CTC) of the cleaned-up national voters’ register of all the persons eligible to vote in Nigeria within 90 days.

Alternatively, he ordered the electoral umpire to publish the cleaned-up national voters’ register of all the persons eligible to vote in the country on its website within 90 days from the date of the judgement.

He also answered the six questions posed by the plaintiff in the positive. The News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) reports that the plaintiff, Rev. Mike Agbon, in the originating summons marked: FHC/ABJ/CS/367/2023 filed on Match 17 through his lawyer, Desmond Yamah, had sued INEC as sole defendant.

In the suit, the plaintiff posed six questions for determination, including “whether the defendant is constitutionally and legally obligated to conduct credible CVR in the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

“Whether the defendant is bound by the constitution and its enabling statute, 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 underage, i.e., infants and toddlers, during the CVR.

“Whether the admission by the defendant that it has a substantial number of 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 a period of one month to identify, produce and handover its officials that are involved in the registration of the underage in each polling unit across the federation for investigation and prosecution by the appropriate law enforcement agency,” etc.

The plaintiff submitted that for many years now, particularly since the return of the country to democratic governance in May 1999, the regrettable issue of the lack of credibility of the electoral processes has been a recurring challenge that has 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 November 12, 2022 and November 25, 2022.

He alleged that upon perusal of the national register of voters, he discovered that the commission registered underage voters, 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 that 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 judgement on Nov. 28 but in a certified true copy sighted on Monday by NAN, Justice Egwuatu held that the conditions for qualification to be registered as a voter were 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 have attained the age of 18 years.

“As I have found earlier in this judgement, 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 to a maximum fine of N500, 000 or imprisonment for a term of 12 months or both.

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