For N200, you're not too young to vote in Taraba
Underage voters in a town in Taraba State are rewarded for illegally registering to vote.
The centre has all the equipment required to adequately put eligible Nigerians on the voter's register for the elections that are only 345 days away.
However, what sets the centre apart from so many others of its kind is that it does not turn anybody away. It does not matter whether you're 17 or barely 12; if you show a willingness to register for the Permanent Voter's Card (PVC), nobody questions you.
Rather than get questioned, you get rewarded with a crisp N200 note after getting your temporary card.
A recent visit by Pulse Nigeria to the centre on Wednesday, February 28, 2018, uncovered the uncomplicated workings of the voter fraud ongoing in that part of the northeastern state.
The scene of the centre could have been mistaken for one where JAMB registration was going on, as it was filled with mostly secondary school students that just closed from school around 2 pm. Some of them had even left school early to go to the centre.
The few adults at the scene could have been mistaken for overbearing parents making sure their kids made the right education choices.
This reporter arrived at the scene to witness a 16-year-old SS1 student of a nearby secondary school collect her temporary card from the registration officer and move a few feet towards another 'official' who took down what appeared to be her card details and promptly paid her N200.
The centre was filled to the brim with other secondary school students, mostly under 18, who were eager to get their cards, and the N200, so much that the registration officers had little room to breathe.
The process is simple: a willing applicant arrives at the centre and is directed to a nearby computer centre to buy the official INEC registration form for the sum of N20. (According to James, an 18-year-old applicant that spoke to this reporter, this only began after the centre ran out of original forms).
What happens next is that the applicant fills the form and submits to the registration officer without any checks whatsoever.
Applicants just casually pick up a form from an unauthorised computer centre, fill the form with falsified ages, and submit to the registration officer who later calls them to get their fingerprints done and input them into the system without questioning their eligibility.
After getting their temporary cards, getting N200 from the other official in sunglasses is the end of the process.
It is important to note that these underage applicants don't particularly look older than their years. Some even look as young as 10.
On the initial form, all ineligible applicants that talked to this reporter confirmed that they filled '2000' as their year of birth, despite looking younger than that.
The INEC officials never require birth certificates or other relevant documents that should confirm their real ages, and they never turn away applicants that are clearly not 18.
A 16-year-old SS1 student, Emmanuel, who got his card on Tuesday, February 27, said, "Even if they born you today and you write 2000 (as year of birth on application form), they'll register you."
According to 13-year-old Ruth, another SS1 student, who really could be mistaken for a 10-year-old, registering was not her choice.
She had accompanied her 19-year-old sister to the Donzomga centre when the officials persuaded her to also register.
She said, "I went there with my sister but they said I should do my own (registration) too."
She also did mention that she was not paid for it, and her father has made it clear she won't be voting during the elections.
According to applicants that spoke to this reporter, the practice of paying people N200 to register to vote didn't start until January 2018.
James and Bob, a 16-year-old who was registered, said the low turnout of people willing to register in 2017 resulted in the drive to use monetary gain as incentive to attract more people.
James said, "If you go there (to the centre, before 2018), you won't see anybody. In a day, highest five people will go there because everybody's doing his own business. But now that they put money now, you'll see small small children there."
When it started in January, applicants reportedly got N500 for their troubles before it was reduced to N200.
Instead of the drive to get more eligible applicants to register, it's brought all sorts of flies to the yard.
While it's unclear where the 'allowance' comes from, James and Bob believe, or have heard, it's from the state government.
Wherever it does come from, there's a local person of interest who might be using undue influence to draw impressionable, ineligible voters to the polls.
PVC for hire
Donga constituency is represented at the Taraba State House of Assembly by a certain Captain Douglas Ndatse Yahaya (Rtd) of the People's Democratic Party (PDP) whose home is only 10 minutes walk from the Donzomga centre.
According to Bob, Capt. Yahaya, a former LGA chairman, is prone to throwing money parties for residents that have their voter's card.
He reported that Capt. Yahayahimself would sit in his compound, cash beside him, and would receive visitors, filed in a queue, who would display their voter's card and get the sum of N500 or N1000, depending on their age range.
He said, "There's a little rich man that's sharing money. If you show voter's card, he'll give you 500. Some 1000. Even a small child can go there and get 500."
Depending on how crafty you are, you could get more than once due to the large crowd, like Bob who once got N500 thrice during a particular money party.
"Just don't let them recognise your face too much the first time," he said.
When Nafisat, the 16-year-old from Wednesday, spoke to this reporter on Thursday, March 1, she reported that she had gone to Capt. Yahaya's house after collecting the N200 from the centre, and had been given an additional N500 by the lawmaker himself for having the card.
This was confirmed by another 16-year-old SS1 student, Fatima, who missed school on Thursday to complete her registration.
She told this reporter on Friday, March 2, that she also visited the lawmaker's home on Thursday and got her own N500 directly from him around 3 pm.
When this reporter visited Capt. Yahaya's home on Thursday, March 1, around 6 pm, it appeared he had closed shop for the day.
Bob also reported that Capt. Yahaya shows up at the Donzomga Primary School centre and sometimes gives the INEC officials money if they tell him that they need it to fund the registration process.
Another resident of Donga reported that the lawmaker sometimes distributes N500 bills to people with voter's card at the centre itself.
It's uncertain if this is where the N200 largesse comes from.
For all of the underage voters that spoke to this reporter on the registration exercise, it was about the money for them.
While some said they'd gladly vote for whoever rewards them with money during elections, some said they'll collect the money and vote for their choices anyway.
"Me, just for money. Even if I collect 1 point something million from Douglas' hand, I'll not vote for him.
"It's our money that they stole. Salary, you're not paying, so it's better that you should give us back now. It's our money. Best thing now is to collect," Bob said.
A pool of ineligible voters was unsure whether Capt. Yahaya, who they'd gotten money from, was the chairman of the LGA, a member of the state assembly or a representative at the Federal House of Representatives. However, they all promised to vote for him if he pays them in 2019.
"It's our money; he's paying us back," one of the teenagers said.
Three people who spoke to this reporter confirmed that they got N500 from the lawmaker. Two of them are clearly underage.
INEC confirms allegation
When Pulse contacted Rotimi Oyekanmi, the Chief Press Secretary to INEC chairman Prof. Mahmood Yakubu, on Monday, March 5, for comments on the issue, he replied hours later to say INEC had "launched an investigation at the highest level in Taraba state into the allegation of under-age registration."
In an exclusive press release sent to Pulse on Wednesday, March 7, the Head of Department, Voter Education and Publicity, INEC, Taraba State office, Fabian Vwamhi, said ineligible persons have been discovered in the voter's register in violation of the Electoral Act.
The statement read, "Following its laid down processes, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) Taraba State office has discovered that some ineligible persons have been registered in the ongoing Continuous Voters Registration (CVR) exercise. This is not only contrary to the INEC Guidelines for Registration but is also a violation of the Electoral Act.
"Consequently, the Taraba State Office has flagged these illegal registrations for removal from the Voters Register.
"In addition, it has queried the electoral officer, as well as the registration officer for the centre; informed the commission's headquarters in Abuja; and drawn the attention of the security agencies for further investigation and possible prosecution of all found to have been involved, including INEC staff."
Efforts to reach Capt. Yahaya or the Taraba State government were unsuccessful.
Underage Voters problem
According to the statistics recently released by INEC, out of a total of 73,944,312 registered voters across Nigeria, as of January 2018, Taraba State has 1,505,902 registered voters.
A clean-up of the voter's register before the 2019 general elections might take a good chunk out of that figure.
While this reporter can only confirm the voter fraud going on in Donga, it appears this is not the only place it's happening as another 15-year-old JSS 2 student, Michael, who looks more like he's 12, reported that he got his own temporary card in a nearby village, Nyitar, with the help of his father.
If it's happening in Taraba, then it's happening in other places within the country's borders.
All the names of the ineligible applicants who spoke to this reporter have been changed in the story to protect their identities.
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