Elections: Vulnerable Groups Haggle For Better Deal

Elections: Vulnerable Groups Haggle For Better Deal

Persons categorised as vulnerable groups want a better deal from election managers whom they accuse of not making adequate plans to take care of their specific challenges. Their charge of seeming exclusion is louder amongst those living with disabilities (PWDs) who say they are particularly at the wrong end of the stick decrying the manner

Persons categorised as vulnerable groups want a better deal from election managers whom they accuse of not making adequate plans to take care of their specific challenges. Their charge of seeming exclusion is louder amongst those living with disabilities (PWDs) who say they are particularly at the wrong end of the stick decrying the manner in which electoral officials carry on as “if we do not matter”, says Mr Jake Epelle, founder Albino Foundation.

Reflecting on the summary of the different presentations at the recently convened international conference in Abuja on use of Technology to enhance the integrity of electoral outcomes by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and Election Management Bodies (EMBs) in West and Southern Africa, Epelle is a bit disturbed that it did not reveal any serious attempt to fundamentally respond to the challenges of the PWDs estimated at about 27 million in Nigeria.

Also sharing this view, Mr Biodun Elugbaju, a physically challenged reporter at Radio Nigeria, Lagos says, “The INEC does not have adequate preparation to handle the electoral challenge of persons living with disabilities (PWDs). It’s like we do not exist in their agenda”.

Even as EMBs across Africa make plans to further deploy technology to guarantee the “sanctity of the ballot”, with a country like Namibia blazing the trail to usher in electronic voting, the vulnerable groups which include women, youth, internally displaced persons (IDPs) and people living with disabilities (PWDs) say that electoral bodies need to appreciate their plight before adopting the right technology to respond to it.

In spite of claims by INEC Chairman, Professor Mahmood Yakubu that EMBs in the West African sub region have promoted “inclusivity in the electoral process”, the PWDs say the opposite is the case. “The deployment of technology has also empowered citizens more than ever before to organise , mobilise and protect their mandates using social media platforms to track result transmission and undertake Parallel vote Tabulation (PVT)”, says Yakubu who’s also President of ECOWAS Network of Electoral Commissions (ECONEC).

But while recounting the lack of a friendly atmosphere for PWDs to perform their civic rights, Elugbaju, also founder of the Hope and Life for Disable Persons Foundation (HALFDIPEF), observes that “The voting materials are not in braille. Neither do they have any sign interpreters at any of the polling centres. The polling booths do not have rams and many are located in areas that are not accessible to those on wheel chairs”.

“Most of the electoral staff are also not properly trained to relate with PWDs. Some of them are offensive in their manners. Some will be asking you, “Why did you bother to come here? You should have sat at home” as if we do not have civic rights like other Nigerians”, he says

Arguing in this vein, Miss Assumpta Khalil, a physically challenged volunteer worker for many PWDs based NGOs, says that electoral officials need to ensure that accessibility is key for those on wheel chairs. “The voting platforms should also not be too high for them to cast their votes. Security is important to safeguard they safety. They should also be given first priority at the polling booths on election day so that they can cast their votes immediately and go home”, she says.

Recalling how he began the process of mainstreaming the PWDs into the electoral process in 2011, Epelle says not many including former INEC Chairman, Prof Attahiru Jega then took him seriously, explaining that “Only less than 5 per cent of people with albinism were then participating in the electoral process”.

“The reason being that, they were not able to stand the rigours of spending long hours under the sun. They also had problems with knowing who to vote for because they had to put their eyes close to the ballot paper. People were also making fun of them at the voting centres which made many to stay away. It may surprise you that I turned 57 this year but I’ve never voted in my life because the environment is not conducive”, he says.

According to the US National Organisation for Albinism, albinism which is generally of two major types, Oculocutaneous and Ocula is a defect that involves decreased pigment in eyes, hair and skin. Although it is not curable, carriers of albinism can be helped by ensuring that they limit their outdoor engagements and exposure to the sun. “Election officials need to understand that and provide the right atmosphere for them to participate in the electoral process”, says Epelle.

Narrating his long drawn struggle, he says, “I kept on with my campaign, trying to sit and educate the electoral officials until they had a public programme and I had the opportunity to speak. And I asked why people with albinism were not engaged in the enlightenment programme. Jega’s response was that their number were too negligible and it was not cost effective to acquire equipment to deal with few people. But that was clearly some mis-reading of the problem. That impression was however corrected after the programme but it was too late”.

Epelle, whose Albino Foundation, is launching a project soon in Ekiti for an “Inclusive, Political and Electoral Participation for PWDs”, says “We are using the election to test run the project. Our PWDs Agenda 2021 is to have 10 PWDs either elected or appointed into strategic positions. It is aimed at having them as role models for others to emulate”. The Albino Foundation is collaborating with three other organisations to implement the support for civil society which is the component 5 of the European Union Support for Democracy and Governance in Nigeria (EU-SDGN) project.

The House of Representatives Committee on Electoral and Political Parties Matters also recently called on INEC to remove the barriers militating against the participation of PWDs in the electoral process. Speaking at the first edition of “Access Nigeria: Disability Votes Matters” at the quarterly meeting organised by Inclusive Friends Association (IFA) in Abuja, its Chairperson, Mrs Aishatu Dukku says the issue of widespread barriers to the participation of PWDs in elections, including inaccessible polling booth and absence of braille and tactile ballots should be properly addressed.

“Nigeria and its citizens must be able to reflect on the barriers that PWDs face in political and electoral processes and partner with relevant stakeholders to remove this barriers”, she says.

Director General of Inclusive Friends Association (IFA), Mrs Grace Jerry call for the amendment of Section 56(2) of the Electoral Act to ensure that off-sight voting, provision of braille or tactile are mandatory for voters with disabilities. “Election can only be free and fair when they reflect the representation of the populace, PWDs inclusive”, she quips.

Experts are of the strong view that deployment of technology to respond to the yearnings of the PWDs must be underscored by a proper understanding of their different challenges.

“The attempt to deal with exclusion in the electoral arena needs to first understand and deal with broader structural exclusion and marginalization. Only when we take these into consideration, would technology as a basis for creating inclusionary trajectories become meaningful”, says the group that looked into the Use of Technology in Promoting Inclusivity in the Electoral Process during the breakout session at the recently concluded international conference of West and Southern Africa EMBs in Abuja.

Chaired by Mamadou Bocar Niane, chief technical adviser to the Director General of Elections, Ministry of Interior, Senegal, the group opines that “fundamental issue of structural exclusion and marginalization have characterized the groups under consideration: women, youth, IDPs and PWDs. This structural exclusion is not limited to the electoral process alone but is apparent in virtually all aspects of development: health, education, etc which is why remedial measures are now being taken to address these in affirmative action as well as in the attempt to, as it were, bring them back into the political and electoral processes.”

It is also important that “Technologies of inclusion are therefore considered in terms of the specificities of each group as into location in the political and electoral processes based on good and best practices across the continent”, it says.

The women and youth groups are already bearing their cans with the galvanisation of their respective members to press for greater visibility in strategic elective and appointive positions. Dr Romoke Edu Ogunlana, deputy chairperson, Labour Party, Osun state who was part of a recent women gathering in Ado Ekiti, argues that “We need to understand that politics is an alternative to war and be prepared to engage with all the resources we can muster”, noting that “women who are opportune to get into positions should endeavour to push other women”.

The INEC Strategic Programme of Action, 2017-2021 aimed at Consolidating, Free, Fair and Credible Elections in Nigeria has a vision to step up the formulation and implementation of Voter Education Programme for Women, Youth and PWDs. It also intends to formulate and implement policies directed to ensure participation of marginalised groups including PWDs, Women, Youth, IDPs and those in Diaspora. Hopefully, this will create a more congenial environment for greater participation of the vulnerable groups in the electoral process.

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