By Sunny Igboanugo and Adetutu Folasade-Koyi:

•  Jonathan Goes On State Visit To U.S. Sunday

Timetable for next year’s general election will be officially announced on Tuesday by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), but Daily Independent can report today that the ballot may hold between January 8 and 29, 2011.

Meanwhile, Acting President Goodluck Jonathan will leave the shores of Nigeria on Sunday for a five-day state visit to the United States.

He is expected to return on March 18.

Reliable sources informed Daily Independent that the visit was scheduled about three weeks ago.

This wll be his first trip outside the country since he became Acting President on Februaruy 9.

The INEC, which had wheeled the process into the theatre for a major operation, came out, it was learnt on Thursday, with the possibility of holding the vote early to ensure all hiccups are resolved before the swearing in of winners on May 29.

But that is with a caveat of the success of the Constitution review, in which the National Assembly (NASS) is trying to also amend the electoral laws.

The NASS is tinkering with the Constitution to produce a new template that would create an appreciable gap between the election and swearing-in of successful candidates, to account for time for litigations, the nagging problem in Nigeria’s democracy.

The Senate, now in the last leg of its own work on the Constitution, is pushing for a 120-day period, with a promise that an amended Constitution will be on the ground this month.

This is what the INEC is banking on for holding the election in January, a date that was decided after an extensive meeting on Thursday between its Chairman, Maurice Iwu, and its National Commissioners.

For the sake of flexibility, however, even as the INEC sees the January date as more appropriate, it has plan B, which is to hold the election in April, as earlier envisaged.

A credible source at the INEC relayed the outcome of the meeting this way: “Yes I can confirm that we met with (Iwu) and agreed on the January date. What we are doing is to follow the mood of the moment, because the INEC does not work in isolation.

“We work with the law, but we also take the feelings of the people along while doing so. It is the feeling of Nigerians that we should finish all litigations before successful candidates are sworn in, and our lawmakers are also thinking that way too.

“Based on that, we have perfected two timetables. We are looking at the situation where the (NASS) approves that there should be a 120-day period for litigations. In that case, elections will hold between January 8 and 29.

“Parties will be required to start their primaries as early as May this year. But if the Constitution is not amended, then elections will hold in April as originally planed. In that case, the parties will hold their primaries in August.”

The source also disclosed that the review of the voters’ register scheduled to commence in April will go ahead as planned.

Officially, the INEC will roll out the comprehensive timetable next Tuesday.

Iwu disclosed this to Senate President, David Mark, when they met in Abuja on Thursday.

A statement issued after the meeting by Mark’s Chief Press Secretary, Paul Mumeh,  quoted Iwu as saying that the INEC has farmed out the timetable and is set to make it public.

Iwu said voters’ registration will be between June and July this year, and the INEC has set up automatic strategic centres in three states: Jigawa, Ogun, and Abia to serve as data base for the registration of voters countrywide.

The INEC has embarked on research and methodology to minimise ballot snatching, electoral violence, rigging, and other malpractices, he added.

He attributed the success of the Anambra State Governorship election on February 6 to the research by INEC, which it will continue to improve on.

Iwu promised a successful ballot in 2011, for which he said the INEC will engage National Youths Service (NYSC) members as back up staff instead of ad hoc staff.

Mark assured the INEC that the NASS will facilitate electoral reform to benefit the next polls, and pledged the support of the NASS for the INEC to discharge all its statutory responsibilities.

“I am impressed that voters’ registration will soon commence, but I am of the opinion that the exercise should be a continuous process.

“Anybody who has come of age could easily walk into any INEC office and register; this will ease the process and make it more accessible to all Nigerians,” he advised.

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