Can Nigeria handle technology in electoral process? (1)

In a three-part series, I will examine the place of Smart Card Readers (SCR) or modified Smart Card Readers or other technological device that may be introduced by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) in the electoral process.

It is a matter of common knowledge that the electoral management body introduced the Smart Card Readers in the 2015 general elections to aid verification and authentication of voters in the accreditation process.

As we move closer to the 2019 general elections, it may be worthwhile to examine the challenges faced by the Nigerian people and the Electoral Management Body in the use and operation of the Smart Card Readers during the 2015 general elections.

I will also take a panoramic view of the amendments made to the Electoral Act, 2010(as amended) by the Senate of the Federal Republic of Nigeria in terms of the place of the Smart Card Readers in the electoral process as well as the introduction of and legalisation of the use of electronic voting in the electoral process. I will bear in mind that the amendments in circulation are that of the Senate and that the version passed or as may be passed by the House of Representatives have to be harmonised before it becomes a Bill of the National Assembly waiting for the assent of the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

I will also examine the process of ecollation and result transmission being proposed by INEC as part of its preparations towards the 2019 general elections. To start with, it is worthwhile to emphasise that INEC and the State Independent Electoral Commissions (SIECs) use the same voters register and the same Permanent Voters’ Cards (PVCs) in the conduct of their respective elections. Constitutionally and legally, only INEC is permitted to register voters and issue Permanent Voters’ Cards.

It is also a notorious fact that INEC conducts all the elections assigned to it in the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999(as amended), the States Independent Electoral Commissions conduct elections to the various local government councils. The implication is that SIECs use the same PVCs issued by INEC for the conduct of local government elections. They also use the same voters register for the conduct of their elections.

In the main, changes in the way the voters register is kept will in a fundamental way affect the way SIECs conduct their elections. Therefore, the fate of local government elections and the way and manner of their conduct is inexorably tied to the form and format of the PVCs and the voters register. It is gratifying to know that some of the states and SIECs are attuned to the new technological changes in the electoral process.

In 2016, the Sokoto State Government courageously conducted their local government elections using the Smart Card Readers. They sought for and obtained the technical backup of INEC and the process was seamless.

The Kaduna State Government has also decided that it will organise its local government elections in July 2017 using the electronic voting system. The implication is that other than the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) that deployed technology in its voting process, the Kaduna State Government and its SIEC may be the pioneer in electronic voting in our electoral system. Presently the Kaduna State Independent Electoral Commission has unveiled some of the equipment that will be used for the voting and are training some of its staff on its workings.

The implication of this is that the Kaduna State Government will conduct the local government election with full blown technology. The Senate has also decided that the time has come for the country to abandon the manual system of voting and embrace the electronic voting systems.

It should be remembered that Nigeria has been making steady progress towards full blown technology in the electoral process. During the 2015 elections, INEC introduced PVCs and Smart Card Readers (CR).

“The use of the Smart Card Readers for the purpose of accreditation of voters is one of the innovations introduced by the Commission to improve the credibility of the electoral process”. According to the  former chairman of the commission, Professor Attahiru Jega, “using the CRs has enormous advantages. First, once configured it can only read PVCs issued by INEC. Second, it reads the embedded microchip in the card, not the barcode.

Third, it enables authentication of the identity of the voter by matching his/her fingerprints with that stored on the chips. Fourth, it keeps a tally of all cards read, all cards verified/ authenticated or not, with all their details. Fifth, this information can be sent to a central server using an sms. Sixth, the stored information on the server would enable INEC audit results from polling units, as well as do a range of statistical analyses of the demographics of voting, something INEC has never been able to do effectively. Seven, the RA/Ward Collation Officer can use this information to audit PU results sheets and determine whether accreditation figures have been altered (a common feature of electoral fraud).”

Of course the Nigerian people faced enormous challenges operating the Smart Card Readers. Some of the Presiding Officers could not operate the Smart Card Readers. Some of the Smart Card Readers malfunctioned and the necessary technical repairs did not arrive at the requisite time.

There were authentication challenges leading to the use of unimaginable number of Incident Forms. Some of the politicians and candidates used some vulnerable Presiding Officers to undermine the Smart Card Readers.

On the whole, the Smart Card Readers provided the Nigerian people with new and creative way of accreditation, lowering multiple voting and the use of cloned Permanent Voters Cards. At the end, despite all the challenges faced by the Nigerian people in the use and operation of the Smart Card Readers, the Nigerian people agreed that technology is the way to go as it lowered to the barest minimum human errors in the conduct of elections.

Unfortunately, the use of the Smart Card Readers for election faced a barrage of challenges before the elections and before the various election tribunals set up after the 2015 elections. Some of the candidates and political parties equated the use of Smart Card Readers with electronic voting. Some of legal practitioners that went before the election tribunals insisted that the report and result from the Smart Card Readers must be the only way of proving overvoting.

The Supreme Court finally resolved the challenges on the place of the Smart Card Readers and held in the case of Mahmud Aliyu Shinkafi v Abdulazeez Yari that “the function of the card reader is to authenticate the owner of a voter’s card and to prevent multiple voting by a voter.”

In the case of Okereke v Umahi and Ors, the Supreme Court also restated the place of the Smart Card Reader in the electoral process when it held that “Prior to the authorization of its use by the Guidelines and Manual (supra), the Electoral Act, 2010(as amended) in section 49(1) and (2), had ordained an analogue procedure for the accreditation process. As a corollary to the procedure outlined above, the Act, in section 53(2), enshrines the consequences for the breach, negation or violation of the accreditation procedure in section 49(supra).

With the advantage of hindsight, INEC, pursuant to its powers under the said Electoral Act, authorized the deployment of the said Card Readers. Even with the introduction of the said device, that is, the Card Reader Machine, the National Assembly, in its wisdom, did not deem it necessary to bowdlerize, or even amend, section 49(supra) from the Electoral Act so that the Card Reader procedure would be the sole determinant of a valid accreditation process.

Contrariwise, from Corrigendum No 2, made on March 28, 2015, amending paragraph 13(b) of the Approved Guidelines, it stands to reason that the Card Reader was meant to supplement the Voters Register and was never designed or intended to supplant, displace or supersede it.”

With the far-reaching amendments made by the Senate of the Federal Republic of Nigeria to the Electoral Act, 2010(as amended) what then is the fate of the Smart Card Reader and the Voters Register in the electoral process?

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