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Is Nigeria ready for electronic voting?

By News Express on 19/04/2017

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It is safe to say that preparation for the 2019 general elections have kicked off. This would be the first major test for the leadership of the Prof Mahmood Yakubu-led Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC).

Only few days back, the commission published the time-table for the next general election, so as to bring about certainty in the country’s electoral calendar. The agenda setting exercise on the coming elections, which has just been unfolded by the electoral umpire gained significant mileage when the Senate announced the passage of a legislation to bring into practice, the use of electronic voting in Nigeria.

 With this unique move, it has become imperative that the latest innovative mechanism recently passed by the National Assembly is critically assessed and made to go through a broad-based debates by critical stakeholders to determine the workability or otherwise of the deployment of the electronic voting machine, similar to the ones used in some technologically advanced societies as the United States of America and Europe.

 It bears repeating that just before the end of March 2017, the Senate passed the bill legislating into being (consequent upon presidential assent/veto) of the electronic voting and card readers for the Independent National Electoral Commission.

 In the considered thinking of the legislators at the upper Chamber of the National Legislature, the fresh amendments to the Electoral Act is meant to introduce the use of electronic voting in elections.

Section 52 (2) of the amendment passed by the Senate reads: “The commission shall adopt electronic voting in all elections or any other method of voting as may be determined by the commission from time to time.”

It explained that “the amendment mandates e-voting without ambiguity, but also gives the commission discretion to use other methods if it is impracticable to use e-voting in any election.”

Integrity of the electoral process remains the biggest problem dogging the practice of democracy in Nigeria. Therefore, the amendments, if well-implemented, will ensure transparency in polls and check the disenfranchisement of eligible voters and other attendant crises of the electoral process, the lawmakers reasoned.

Specifically, section 49 of the new amendment tagged: ‘Accreditation of voters, transmission of accreditation data, issuance of ballot papers to voters’, etc, states: “A person intending to vote in an election shall present himself with his voter’s card to a presiding officer for accreditation at the polling unit in the constituency in which his name is registered. The presiding officer shall use a smart card reader or any other technological device that may be prescribed by the commission from time to time for the accreditation of voters, to verify, confirm or authenticate.”

The Senate explained that this aspect of the amendment “gives solid legal footing and clarity to the commission’s introduction of smart card readers for accreditation of voters during elections,” adding that it equally “makes room for introduction of other electronic devices by the commission, as may be necessary, in the future.”

According to the lawmakers, the amendment also “makes allowance for the likelihood of failure of card readers and mandates the commission to remedy such a situation. However, whereas it may sound revolutionary that at long last Nigeria is joining the ranks of advanced societies that would adopt the electronic voting mechanisms, but there are a number of challenges that ought to be confronted before Nigeria can holistically come to terms with the smooth deployment of advanced voting technology such as electronic voting infrastructures. 

Let me make it clear from onset that I support any mechanisms put in place to checkmate the perennial abuses of the electoral process and system by desperate politicians, in cohort with corrupt officials of INEC. My only concern is how Nigeria can address the fundamental challenges that may inhibit the smooth implementation of this revolutionary voting method. 

Apart from poor infrastructures, the economic recession is a major drawback in such a way that it may be difficult to find the quantum of cash that would be required to buy these electronic voting infrastructures. Nigeria, as we know it, is a perpetual consumer and not a producer of these essential soft- or hard-wares.  So the challenges are real. 

These challenges are in two parts, namely: human factors, and infrastructural backbone factors.

As regards the human factor, it is important to state that Nigerians need to undergo fundamental and clearly intensive orientation to depart from the temptations of manipulating whatever process and mechanisms that are put in place, such as the electronic voting machine being contemplated.

The nation is still at the primary stage of dismantling the criminal infrastructure of sophisticated cybercrime gangs. This model being contemplated - which in any case is in tune with global best practices - could definitely be undermined by these teething problems of technicalities.

Experience has shown that the problems that characterised previous elections underscores the imperative of institutionalising atmospheres of free, fair, transparent elections as the basis for the implementation of purpose-driven programmes and projects by elected leaders that enhance good governance and rapid human and industrial developments.

We also need to strengthen the necessary institutions that ought to dispense justice to administer legal sanctions on alleged manipulators of elections. These critical areas of gaps are yet to be fundamentally addressed. There is, therefore, the urgency of the now to put all options on the table and to proffer the most pragmatic panacea, just before Nigeria can begin the use of electronic voting in Nigeria.  

The second fundamental inhibition to the implementation of the use of electronic voting in Nigeria is the infrastructure gaps.

For decades, scholars have come to the consensus that the electricity power situation has been a major cause for concern. The epileptic power supply situation throughout the nation has hindered the growth of the manufacturing sectors and subsequently, prohibits the development of the country (apologies to Fumnanya Abugah). According to this writer, the epileptic power supply in the country has hindered growth of the manufacturing sector and, subsequently, prohibited development. This position is shared by millions of Nigerians.

To underscore the collapse of the electricity power sector, we are hereby reminded that just a few days back, the top six GenCos providing the country with electricity - Egbin Power Limited, Transcorp Power, Shiroro, Kainji/Jebba, Sapele, and Geregu - announced that they would shut down their power plants operations, if the Federal Government, through the Nigerian Bulk Electricity Trader (NBET), refuses to pay its N156 billion debt to them.

According to the statement released by the GenCos, they are unable to access gas supplies or repair their networks. The NERC on another hand has not been able to meet their revenue projections made before they increased the tariffs because power generation has dropped. 

This serious electricity power infrastructure gap may fundamentally pose a serious adversarial challenge to the full implementation of the e-voting, as contemplated within the context of the just-passed legislation on electronic voting. 

But the Senate President, Dr Bukola Saraki, believes strongly that the new technologically advanced form of voting would clean up the many hiccups that usually characterise our elections through the years. To the Nigerian Senate, the passage of the Electoral Act No 6 2010 (Amendment) Bill 2017, after years of unsuccessful attempts by previous, assemblies is a milestone. The bill, he said, gives the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), new powers, as well as pushes for more accountability and transparency in the conducting of elections.

He listed five components of the legislation that Nigerians ought to know. They are as follows:

First, instant transmission of results: The Senate president submitted that the Senate's INEC reform bill mandates the immediate transmission of voting results from polling units to collation centres. This will help give real-time result updates and end election malpractice.

Secondly, the amendment brings about the online publication of voter-registers, because it inherently mandates that INEC voter-registers must now be published 30 days before the election. This will end the manipulation of voter-registers.

There third component is bringing into being the full biometric accreditation of voters.

According to him, the Senate's electoral reform bill gives INEC powers to utilise full biometric accreditation of voters with smart card readers and/or other technological devices, as INEC may introduce for elections from time to time.

The amendment restricts arbitrary qualifications in the sense that under the Senate's electoral reform bill, political parties can no longer impose arbitrary qualification criteria on candidates. This will encourage younger voters to contest, thereby making elections less about money and more about ideas.

Saraki also stated that the amendments would allow for more direct primaries.

According to the Senate's electoral reform bill, all party members are now eligible to determine the ad-hoc delegates to elect candidates in the primary process. This will make the election process more democratic.

While we cannot totally throw away the baby with the bathwater, it is imperative that a lot more preparations are put in place, if Nigeria is to fully benefit from the merits of the electronic voting mechanisms. The general state of infrastructure must be improved and the institutions of law enforcement must be strengthened and the many bad eggs taken out, to allow for proper monitoring of the process.

A look at how armed police and soldiers robbed ballot papers in the previous elections should remind us of the need to put laws in place to stop cyber-hackers from messing up these innovative solutions to our electoral misfortunes. 

RIGHTSVIEW appears on Wednesdays, in addition to special appearances. The Columnist, a popular activist, is a former Federal Commissioner of Nigeria’s National Human Rights Commission and presently National Coordinator of Human Rights Writers’ Association of Nigeria (HURIWA). He can be reached via 08033327672 (sms only) or via doziebiko@yahoo.com

Source News Express

Posted 19/04/2017 11:10:34 AM

 

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