INVESTIGATION: How INEC’s Failure to Provide Braille Ballot Guides, Other Technologies Deny Gombe Disabled Voters Privacy, Dignity

By Idris Kamal & Hafsah Mohammed 

visually impaired Sadiq Ibrahim, 57, had set out for Jeka Da Fari polling station in Gombe State for the presidential and governorship elections. He was full of energy and enthusiasm, like every other voter. As soon as it was his turn to vote, it became apparent that the much talked about assistive technology for the disabled was not made available by Independent National Electoral Commsission (INEC). This means he could not vote alone in the voting cubicle with accorded privacy and human dignity as he had longed for.

Sadiq became disabled at nine. Since then, he had relied on help from people around him to do things, including voting during elections.

He grudgingly accepted to be assisted by party agents at the polling unit after much persuasion from the PU Presiding Officer. He was, however, denied the privilege of picking another assistant aside from the party agents. He collected the ballot papers and walked to the voting cubicle erected a few meters away to thumbprint them.

“They swayed me to rely on the party agent prescribed for me to cast my vote during the 2023 general elections. No other option was available for other persons with disabilities (PWDs) and me because the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) did not supply a braille ballot guide, magnifying glasses and other assistive technology to my polling unit as promised.

“There is always an element of doubt over the voting process for me because I have to rely on a party agent who I am pretty sure will not allow me to vote for a candidate of my choice, thus taking advantage of my blindness and non-provision of electoral materials suitable for PWDs to guarantee us voting privacy,” Sadiq said.

Both infringement on the privacy of PWDs and inadequate or non-provision of braille ballot paper and magnifying glasses, contravene provisions of sections 122 and 54 (2) of the 2022 Electoral Act which states:

 (1) Every person in attendance at a polling unit including every officer charged with the conduct of an election and his or her assistants and every polling agent and candidate in attendance at a polling station or at the collation centre, as the case may be, shall maintain and aid in maintaining the secrecy of the voting.

 (2) No person in attendance at a polling booth under this section shall, except for some purpose authorised by law, communicate to any person information as to the name or number on the register of any voter who has or has not voted at the place of voting.

 (3) No person shall— (a) interfere with a voter casting his or her vote, or by any other means obtain or attempt to obtain in a polling unit, information as to the candidate for whom a voter in that place is about to vote for or has voted for; or

 (b) communicate at any time to any other person information obtained in a polling unit as to the candidate to whom a voter is about to vote or has voted for.

 (4) Any person acting contrary to the provisions of this section commits an offence and is liable on conviction to a maximum fine of N100,000 or imprisonment for a term of three months or both.

Also, section 54 (2) states that:

 The Commission shall take reasonable steps to ensure that persons with disabilities, special needs and vulnerable persons are assisted at the polling place by the provision of suitable means of communication, such as Braille, large embossed print, electronic devices, sign language interpretation, or offsite voting in appropriate cases.

The situation is the same for Hassan Muhammad, another visually impaired person who votes at Sharmana Ward in Kaltungo local government. He said, “We are a minority in the society and voters in an election. However, our special needs are not even prioritised in our nation’s democratic processes. INEC forgot to safeguard our privacy by its failure to make available adequate voting materials suitable to us.

“Apart from providing braille ballot guides, visually impaired persons need to be employed in the electoral commission so that they can represent us and solve our problems.”

For Aminu Marafa, another blind voter, the Nigerian factor made party agents unreliable guides for PWDs. “I cannot trust someone I don’t know and am not comfortable with. For instance, in 2003, an agent took me to my polling unit to vote,” adding that, “later, he told me he misguided me to vote for another candidate other than the one that I told him I will be voting.”

“Sometimes these party agents even use their thumbs to vote on our behalf,” he added.

Sunusi Isah and Muhammad Murtala, APC and PDP polling agents respectively, told WikkiTimes that they guide PWDs to cast their votes. They added that during some elections, party agents go as far as mobilising persons with disabilities from their homes to polling units to help them vote for the party that they represent.

“We have had no issues with those people. They always depend on us to cast their votes and we are always ready to help,” Murtala said.

Mohoret Bigun, spokesperson of INEC in Gombe argued that the commission delivered special provisions for PWDs to all polling units across all the local government areas in the state.

He, however, justified INEC’s failure to adequately cater for PWDs voters saying, “The problem is that not every polling unit has persons with disabilities and speaking of braille guides, it’s not all blind persons that can read the braille,” he added.

Confirming INEC’s failure to make braille ballot guides available to over 4,000,000 disabled voters as promised, Oluwakemi Odusanya, Administrative Officer of the Nigeria Association of Blind (NAB) said the guide was not available at his own polling station in Lagos.

“It is so surprising and disappointing that even the ad hoc staff don’t even know that the braille ballot guide is not to talk of whether it was even available,” Oluwakemi said.

He said most of the ad hoc staff recruited for the elections displayed total ignorance of the Braille ballot guide.

Similarly, The Albino Foundation Africa (TAF Africa) Persons With Disabilities report at the end of the 2023 presidential and national assembly elections raised concerns that INEC did not provide enough braille and magnifying glasses to PWDs during the elections. TAF Africa said INEC could only provide 26 braille ballot guides and 60 magnifying glasses to PWDs in 273 polling units mostly within the Federal Capital Territory.

This report was published with support from Civic Media Lab.

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