Election Universe

Did technology help Nigeria to improve electoral credibility?

Did technology help Nigeria to improve electoral credibility?
April 10 2015, 21:05

Nigeria received April with a new president: General Muhammadu Buhari of the All Progressives Congress (APC), who became the first Nigerian politician to unseat a sitting leader in a democratic election. Buhari, a former military ruler, won 21 states (with 15,424,921 votes 53.96%), while incumbent president Goodluck Jonathan from the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) took 15 states along with the capital, Abuja (12,853,162 votes, 44.96%). The APC also won majority status in the National Assembly election on March 28. The opposition coalition will now have 64 seats; the PDP, 45; and the Labour Party, one, in the Senate.

The event was probably the most important and contested election held in Nigeria since its return to civilian rule in 1999. Surprisingly, it was widely recognised as orderly and peaceful, after a hostile campaign, electoral violence background, and deadly threats from Boko Haram. After the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) announced the results, in an unprecedented act, Jonathan phoned Buhari to concede defeat and issued a statement advising his followers to accept the result.

However, these were not the only unexpected good news to ponder after the elections. Technology played an important role in the event through the deployment of electronic voting cards (PVCs), card readers and fingerprint scanners. Despite documented technical glitches, the technological novelties assisted the INEC and Nigerian voters in facing with success long overdue electoral challenges.

Some challenges and the solutions found

Challenge 1: Identity fraud and ballot-rigging had always been a serious problem in Nigeria. Solution: Biometric voting cards and fingerprint scanners.

– The INEC implemented a new smart card’s system to verify the voters’ identity. The technology matches a holder’s fingerprint against a profile stored in the embedded chip.

– The card is also a travel document, conforming to the same standards as international passports. Nigeria (population of about 170 million) had no unified national system for recording identity data until now.

– Nigeria’s Transition Monitoring Group said: “We know there were issues with card readers but where it worked, it enhanced the conduct of the election. Irregularities were more or less isolated cases.” The former Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) chairman commended INEC for the introduction of the Permanent Voter Cards and the Card Reader, “the new innovations helped to minimize electoral fraud in the elections.” Electoral observer missions also included the African Union, Commonwealth of Nations, ECOWAS, and the European Union.

Challenge 2: Problems with the card-reading machines. Solution: Polling in some areas was spilled over into a second day.

– The INEC decided to extend the voting in some polling stations until Sunday (March 29). The protocol noted to stop the use of card readers and go manual if the errors with the devices continue.

– The decision to postpone the elections affected 300 polling stations out of about 150,000, said INEC, but the authorities insisted this would have no impact on the final result.

– There was also the political side of these malfunctions claims, as the governing PDP had opposed the use of card readers since the moment INEC announced the deployment. In Otuoke, president Goodluck Jonathan (contrary to the use of technology) experienced problems himself with the biometric readers. On the other hand, the opposition leader (now President Buhari) stated: “I like the integrity of the system… If people are allowed to vote then rigging will be virtually impossible under the system.”

Challenge 3: Threats of election violence. Solution: Guarantee peaceful elections trough more secure and reliable polls that would increase turnout and public confidence.

– Attahiru Jega, INEC’s chairman, said on Sunday that the Commission was confident its objective of holding a “free, fair, credible and peaceful” election was “on course.”

– The electoral authorities attempted to guarantee the right to vote of those internally displaced by Boko Haram. The extremist organization, which promised to backfire the elections, killed 41 people on Saturday, including an opposition legislator, and drove away citizens from the polls. The INEC allowed some of these voters to come back on Sunday.

– Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general, congratulated the West African nation for holding a “largely peaceful and orderly” ballot. The last election in 2011, 800 people were killed and 65,000 people were displaced, mainly in the Muslim north.

Challenge 4: Delays in the accreditation process. Solution: Document cases of late arrival of officials and materials. Better training for future elections.

– There were widespread delays in the opening of polling units. Some opened two –and up to four- hours after the appointed 8 a.m. start time because of the late arrival of personnel, equipment and ballots.

– The massive turnout made the election a successful one. Even if INEC officials arrived late at the polls, the registration with biometric cards made easier and faster the authentication.

– After analysing late polls opening, most cases reflected officials’ unpunctuality and not necessarily technical issues. However, the National Democratic Institute (NDI) observation statement noted that “while these innovations were effective in many of the polling stations, in other places, equipment malfunctioned led to significant delays.”

– Observers have recommended INEC to address opening delays (i.e. plan better transportation of poll workers and sufficient distribution of polling materials), maintain heightened security, disseminate guidelines on how to handle equipment failures, address overcrowding in some polling units, provide more voter information aimed at internally displaced persons, and pursue efforts for violence-free elections.

What to expect next?

– This Saturday, April 11, will be taking place the gubernatorial and states Houses of Assembly elections. Twenty-nine of Nigeria’s thirty-six states will elect new governors. Monkey Cage Blog (in The Washington Post) made an interesting review of some of the disputes to expect.

– Better training for electoral officials. INEC chairman mentioned after the elections that one possible explanation for the number of failures of card readers is that “the people operating them had not been trained.” This should encourage the Commission to plan new and better training procedures for future events.

– Electronic voting. Reviewing the current Nigerian law to include electronic voting in future elections. Some of the voices raising this option include former Nigerian Bar Association chairman, the Nigerian Society of Engineers (NSE), and Governor Mu’azu Babangida Aliyu of Niger State.

– Nigeria seen as an example to follow by other African countries on e-voting systems and biometric electoral registration. At least 25 countries in Africa have tried an electronic component of one kind of another in their voting systems, including Ghana, Sierra Leone, Zambia, Malawi, Rwanda, Democratic Republic of Congo and Cote d’Ivoire. Some might take this opportunity to discuss best practices and Nigeria’s 2015 experience.

Image: Wahlkampf in Nigeria 2015 by Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung on Flickr