Nigeria begins registering millions for April polls

OTUOKE, Nigeria Sat Jan 15, 2011 1:38pm EST

1 of 4. A computer used for registering voters is seen in a makeshift registration centre along a road in Lagos January 15, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Akintunde Akinleye

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OTUOKE, Nigeria (Reuters) - Nigeria began the mammoth task of registering an estimated 70 million voters on Saturday, a process which will be key to ensuring nationwide elections in April are more credible than in the past.

An electoral roll riddled with fictitious names and omitting legitimate voters, combined with ballot-stuffing and intimidation, so badly marred previous votes in Africa's most populous nation that observers refused to sign off on them.

President Goodluck Jonathan, who won the ruling party nomination on Thursday, has said organizing clean presidential, parliamentary and state governorship elections in three months' time is a top priority. An accurate electoral roll is key.

Jonathan named Attahiru Jega, a respected academic, to head the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) last June as part of efforts to clean up the system.

Jega said from the outset establishing a new voter list so quickly in a country of 140 million would be challenging.

"Nigerians need to understand what we have started today is such a massive exercise the like of which I don't recall in terms of scale and complexity," Jega told reporters in Jonathan's home village, shortly after the president registered.

"We're working in 120,000 polling stations nationwide. We have to deploy men and materials to these places and we have to ensure the process commences on time."

Crowds of villagers and Jonathan's supporters flocked to his village of Otuoke to see him and his wife Patience register under a makeshift canopy outside their country home.

Schools have been closed until the end of the month and are to be used as registration centers during the two-week exercise.

INEC last year bought 120,000 electronic voter registration kits -- including laptop computers, finger print scanners, cameras and printers -- using part of a controversial 88 billion naira ($585 million) budget.

Jega said around 98,000 of the kits had been deployed and acknowledged there had been logistical problems, including with some of the scanners. He said he hoped the remainder would be deployed in the next 24 hours.

"I want to ask Nigerians to be patient with us ... We are only 5 hours into the first day of a 15-day exercise," he said.

(Additional reporting by Camillus Eboh in Abuja; writing by Nick Tattersall)

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