Did Nigeria’s election tech fail or was it sabotaged?
Young voters put their faith in digital technology. But at polling units nationwide, many were transported to an elections twilight zone.
Victor Madu, a 25-year-old part-time student at the National Open University of Nigeria, always believed that he had no business with elections in the country. His position was based on two premises: the absence of credible candidates, and the level of malpractice historically synonymous with the country’s electoral process.
But in June 2022, a few months after President Muhammadu Buhari signed a new electoral bill into law, he had a change of heart and decided to endure the long and gruelling process of registering and collecting a Permanent Voters Card (PVC), which would make him eligible to vote: “On two occasions, I had to bribe officials before I got it. The first time I paid N1,500 ($3.40) and later N2,000 ($4.3),” Victor recalls. He took consolation in the belief that as long as his vote counted, it was a small sacrifice to pay.
After getting his PVC, he began to mobilise friends and neighbours, many of whom also shared his old sentiments about the conduct of elections in the country. At 7 am on 25 February, the day of the presidential election, he set off to vote, determined that no one in his community would fail to exercise their civic duty.
“Our morale was very high. We were confident that the [amendments] to the electoral law would make the difference,” he recalls.
The game changer
Since independence, Nigeria’s governance institutions have failed to meet the challenge of conducting credible elections. But the introduction of the new electoral law last year led citizens to believe that an answer had finally been found, leading to increased interest and trust in this most discredited of processes. This enthusiasm was even more evident among young people seeking to make a change.
This sudden trust and the ability of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) was, among other things, inspired by the fact that technological innovations had been introduced to address the slew of malpractices that typify elections in Nigeria. The most prominent of these innovations is the Bimodal Voters Accreditation System (BVAS) and the INEC Result Viewing (IReV) portal.
A digital device that authenticates and accredits voters via fingerprints and facial recognition, the BVAS replaced the manual voter verification, which had been grossly abused in the past, notably allowing multiple voting by a single voter. The device also captures images of the polling unit result sheets (Form EC8A) and uploads the image online. The INEC Results Viewing portal (IREV), the central repository where all results sheets from each polling unit would be uploaded immediately after votes had been counted, allowed voters to view the results. It was, therefore, impossible for the result to be changed – in theory, at least.
Despite some fears about the effectiveness of the system, at the end of the voter registration exercise last August, INEC announced that it had registered an additional 10.5 million voters. 84% were aged 34 years and under and brought the total number of registered voters to more than 94 million. After decades of deepening voter apathy, there was a sense of real optimism in the electoral system.
To ensure this new introduction is effective, the electoral law made it statutory for the results in all polling units to be electronically transmitted immediately after the announcement of results.
‘Riding on chaos and crisis’
“The first sign that the electoral body would fall short of our expectations came on the evening of the day of the election,” Victor explains. “Immediately after votes were counted, the BVAS machine stopped working and they [INEC officials] said they couldn’t log in to upload again. Some said they did not have [mobile phone] data.”
To ensure the results in the various polling units in his community at Satellite ward, Amuwo-Odofin local government, Lagos State, were uploaded, Victor and his friends, who he had mobilised to come and vote, turned on their mobile hotspot for the officials to upload the results. “But after connecting, the machine didn’t work. This thing happened in all the polling units in my area. I was moving around, helping people locate their polling units so I went around and it was the same all over. At that moment, we began to suspect it was a conspiracy. But we had to let the INEC officials leave for security reasons and to avoid violence.”
From that moment, Victor and his friends began to check the IReV portal, anticipating the uploading of results. This did not happen until two days later, on Monday 27 February. It turned out to be the least of their problems. The first results they saw on the portal was that of No 4, Baale street I, PU016, Satellite ward 7. To their utmost surprise, the result uploaded for their polling unit was that of Gitata in Karu local government, Nasarawa state – a polling unit located at least 704 km away.
“I was disappointed when I saw it,” Uche Okoye, one of Victor’s friends, says. “Up till now, I have not gone to market because the shock never leave my body,” the 34-year cosmetics seller added in pidgin on Wednesday afternoon.
At another polling unit in their community, located at “End of Olanrewaju street, Satellite ward”, the result of another polling unit in Nasarawa State was also uploaded.
However, Victor explained that when he checked the portal again on Wednesday morning – by which time the ruling party’s Bola Tinubu had declared the winner – they had replaced the results with the original ones. “But they have already declared a winner. So how did they get that? What caused this?” he asked rhetorically. He was silent for a while, and then said, “The whole thing was rigged.”
Hundreds of cases similar to these were identified across the country and shared by disappointed voters on various social media platforms, leading to questions about how transparent the process was.
“Our democracy should have matured past this particular stage. The fact that we are still facing all these irregularities is disappointing,” Nimah Arigbabu, a public policy analyst at NG Voices, said.
She explained that the introduction of BVAS was necessitated by the need to ensure the mandate of the people at every election is protected. “But what is obvious now is that we enjoy riding on chaos and crisis.”
“It just goes on to show that at this point, we have further weakened our democratic system. We might not feel it yet, but at some point in the future, we are going to come back and regret this.”
A different pattern
David Akindolire, a 26-year-old lawyer, voted for the first time this year. At his polling unit, voting did not start until almost noon; INEC had directed polling units to open at 8.30 am. The officials arrived very late. For hours, David and many others braved the heat and the chaos around them. At multiple polling units a few miles away from theirs, political thugs disrupted voting exercises, threatened voters, and even attempted to steal a ballot box.
But despite this, he stayed on, determined to exercise his civic duty. “More than 90 of us later voted. And the number of voters registered there is about four times that,” he recalled. “Some people left before the officials arrived.”
David’s experience mirrors a pattern of experiences recorded by several voters, especially young first-time voters, raising questions about the low turnout of voters announced by INEC, and a growing suspicion of organised vote suppression. At the end of the exercise, the voter turnout of 27% was the lowest in the country’s history. It goes against a widely-held perception of a historically high turnout.
Experts have identified the late arrival of officials as one of the factors responsible for the fall in voter turnout recorded in the county’s closest presidential race since its return to democracy in 1999.
Olasupo Abideen, the director of Brain Builder Youth Development Initiative, explains that the recorded turnout this time around broke with the pattern of declining voter turnout established in previous elections.
“As an organisation, we did a technical analysis based on the voter turnout from 1999-2019 and we discovered that the [official] figures are because our elections have always been marred with irregularities,” explains Olasupo, who headed his organisation’s Election Situation Room. He is suggesting that the lower turnout figures given for these elections could be attributed to the digital technology, which prevented multiple voting.
He notes that with the introduction of the BVAS, “we are now seeing the technical number of voters in the country”, meaning more accurate figures, an indication that the credibility of all elections between 2003 and 2019 is questionable. “Like I have been telling people, those that came out to vote this time around are more than those in previous elections.”
Nimah, who concurs with Olasupo’s analysis on the role of the BVAS in eradicating bloated voter figures, noted that a preliminary analysis revealed that young people came out to vote but older ones did not, adding that in the northern part of the country, a significant fraction of the population liked neither of the two Muslim presidential candidates on the ballot – the APC’s Tinubu and the main opposition PDP’s Atiku Abubakar.
Amid all this, first-time voters like Uche say they have started weighing the option of never participating in future elections since their vote won’t count. But experts disagree with this course of action.
“Young people should not give up. We’ll continue until we make headway,” Nimah maintains.
Sadly this Nigerian Election Observation venture smells analogous to an election vacation proving of marginal prescriptive value other than tendering generic bromides signalling marginal to naught.
My take in why ‘electoral tourism’ is pernicious in fostering state building—— Electoral Tourism
USAID, instead of wasting precious resources on ‘Electoral Tourism’ Nigeria for crass traction—now being a common USAID practice deploying at great public expense electoral observer missions staffed by peoples lacking descriptive seasoned election forensics should instead target resources in the strengthening of National Civil Society Organizations in affording National CSO’s the ‘wherewithal’ in being able to upgrade their respective professionalism along with resources sufficient allowing CSO’s to provide critical public oversight in civic civil social electoral processes.
Understood, all public monies provided via USAID be subject to a forensic audit ensuring full probity meaning the only Internationals deployed into the field be a USAID aegis Accountant charged with responsibility effecting full audit in how public monies are expended instead of making use at great expense election tourists as these individuals— former political types tend for the most part to be in the ‘second class’ in academic professional cvic civil election rigour including prior professional systematic type kind electoral endeavours.
My suspicions inclusive of my seasoned judgement lead me to this salient conclusion—the beneficiary NGO deployment institution tend to be the most adamant in continuing this waste of scarce financial resources as these type institutions [IRI, NDI, IFES] desire to maintain HQ status inclusive of personal institutional privileges resulting in marginal prescriptive regard in doing least harm in the field as nationals are far best equipped to deal in knowing what is going wrong in the field as nationals know how best to alleviate potential electoral flaws prior to these electoral flaws being embedded by the National EMB.
In my judgement, the most significant essentiality in regions of civic civil social electoral stress/strife is resource allocation empowering local education concomitant with local Civil Society professionalization inclusive of logistical strengthening.
In the most recent election foray in Nigeria monitoring the Presidential election, the various International Electoral Monitoring/Observer Groups were in my opinion—a joke—a waste of scarce resources and most critical for me, the conclusions provided by these various International Observer Groups were at best banal in being anodyne, trite, saccharine, and in worse case endorsing the status quo institutional oligarchy in the continuing in theft pillage.
The February 25/23 National Presidential Election in Nigeria has all the structural props representing the democratic electoral process procedure ‘prima facie’:
– long list of hopeful candidates seeking public office
– clearly demarcated constituencies
– campaign rallies
– following close of the polling stations rolling result announcements.
Unfortunately, this represents ‘potemkin’ type electoral democracy.
Real democracy empowers the citizen in full unbridled civics generating citizen articulation in civic civil social empowerment. Even in electoral loss, citizens must feel safe and hopeful for their future. In the eventuality, if the opposition’s legal pleadings to overturn the results proves without merit, the violence in the streets, the army opening fire at will, and the intimidation of journalists is a most worrying sign of what could be on the horizon for the state.
Alan Renwick in The Politics of Electoral Reform suggests most strong “elections lie at the heart of modern democracy” and “belief in democracy amounts to belief in the value of certain [democratic pluralistic] processes”.
This ‘democracy equals elections’ algorithm I regard as being facile and descriptively pernicious in the advancement of sound congruent civic civil social electoral credibility.
My interest and concern is where democratic rules originate and why these rules either submit to change or remain static. I believe if we want to know where elections rules originate, we need to recognize that democracy—the democratic struggle—is the heart and soul of elections and the civic electoral process specifically when electoral rules are taxonomically assessed.
Democracy—democratic process needs to be grounded in the prism presuming that democracy is not this or that type/kind of civil institution and not amenable to facile matrix definition/categorization; but rather a very very very messy conflictive dialectic process constantly evolving and mutating according to historic exigency. I believe modern representative elections are governed by a complex body of rules known as an ‘electoral system’ which may be considered as the social positive ethos reflecting governance institution standards of prescriptive probative conduct. These civil social changes are of crucial importance in understanding as well as appreciating civic electoral modifications which ought to reflect and strengthen normative sound good institution representative governance.
Therefore, National Civil Society Organizations need to be funded ensuring CSO capacity to fully exercise prescriptive along with descriptive responsibility in Election Monitoring without reliance from International Election Monitoring—‘Election Tourist’.
The civic civil social electoral process inclusive of procedure must be grounded within a strict ethos of trust.
– Trust in the EMB-Election Management Body.
– Trust in the various political actors encouraging them to reflect in advancing the ‘better angels’ in their society.
– Trust in the governance process facilitating indirectly/directly the election.
– Trust in the legal judicial institutions which provide regulatory oversight in the conduct of an election.
Developing trust means intense profound strengthening of National Civil Society Organizations which will require dedicating significant resources to these multifaceted CSO’s as National CSO’s are best able to modulate the entire civic civil social electoral process enhancing an outcome electoral which is deemed by the majority of citizens as both credible and inclusive in being ethically virtuous in process and procedure.
National CSO’s dedicated in areas of Human Rights, Law, Academe, Health Care, Students, Political Party, Teachers, Public Administrators, Church, Engineers, Technical Agents would be embedded within the Electoral Management Body [EMB] along with being legally privileged in attending each polling precinct to bear witness in strictly observing the civic civil social electoral process in full entirety ensuring mitigation in electoral ‘sharp practice’ as deployment of National CSO’s will only inspire among the national citizens an enriched trust in the election process.
My extensive exposure in regions fragile where I participated in election design and planning including the administration of elections has lead me to this conclusion in prescriptive electoral judgement as I now subscribe to National CSO embedding fully within the civic civil social electoral process which must be allowed to continue from one election cycle into the following election cycle as ‘ad hoc’ International Election Observation cannot ever hope to trench fully into the nexus of an election in determining malfeasance.
Instead of allocating resources to International Electoral Missions, preference ought be given to ensuring that these National CSO’s are allowed the professional intellectual tools inclusive of administrative logistics in being able to project within the electoral cycle a full complete forensic analytical series of ongoing assessments without fear or favour.
If this form of CSO strengthening fulsome were to be considered and implemented I opine a debacle such as the Kenyan election imbroglio several years ago might very well have been averted as the signals suggesting electoral impropriety facilitated by the Kenyan EMB would have been detected and made public with proper appropriate evidence leading to necessary electoral recalibration.
Successful Elections are trust embedded and the civic civil social electoral process fails utterly whenever the trust baseline is compromised, however marginal the trust fault line.
I remain sincerely,