Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Technology makes it harder to rig elections in Nigeria

In 2007, Musa Yar’Adua was elected president of Nigeria in an election so flawed, one of his major actions as president was pushing for electoral reforms.

To his credit, due to progress made since, an election like that of 2007 (described as “a charade” by election observers) is unlikely today. And a major reason is INEC, Nigeria’s electoral commission, has embraced technology. While Nigeria’s elections are by no means fully electronic, the use of permanent voter cards (PVC) verified by electronic card readers to accredit voters has proven a major leap.

Under the current system, voters show up at polling units and have their PVC verified by card readers before being allowed to vote. The two-step authentication eliminates the dual problems of impersonation and multiple voting—previously rampant rigging tactics. It’s a major shift from the past when only paperwork (which could easily be faked) was enough to allow voters cast a ballot.

“The smart card readers and PVCs were a very important innovation that really enhanced the credibility of the elections,” says Richard Klein, senior adviser for elections at the National Democratic Institute (NDI). As Quartz Africa has reported, improvements in making elections more secure have forced politicians to rethink their campaign tactics to reach and convince voters directly.

INEC, which is going through its latest credibility test after delaying the presidential election by a week with a few hours to the polls opening on Feb. 16, has taken steps to protect its current set-up. This includes programming the card readers to work only at specific locations and during specific time frames on election day, which will now be Saturday Feb. 23.

To reduce the likelihood of a hack, the card readers are also programmed to only transmit data without receiving any during the polls. The commission has also proven proactive in solving any card reader-related problems. Eyitemi Egbejule, a cyber-security consultant, who worked on card reader tests as a third party consultant before they debuted in the 2015 election says INEC fixed all identified security issues before the elections. The commission has since upgraded the system ahead of this year’s elections.

Lingering problems

Despite major progress, INEC’s processes remain far from perfect. The commission’s technology could ultimately be undermined by its people if electoral officials abandon the card readers on election day as a result of intimidation by party agents or in a bid to speed up voting, Klein says. It’s a red flag that election observers will keenly watch out for.

The process of collation of results, still done manually, is also a weakness along the value chain and is susceptible to manipulation, Klein adds. There are also transparency concerns under INEC’s current system as it has not yet announced the total number of collected PVCs, despite calls from civic society groups to do so.

Political parties and actors in Nigeria are still trying to game the system too: vote buying tactics—offering money or food as inducements for votes on election day—have become more brazen. One Lagos taxi driver, who asked not be named, described how he was been offered a 1,000 naira (~$3) mobile phone card to get his vote, during the last presidential election. Then there’s also the fear of possible voter suppression and intimidation by party agents in their opponents’ strongholds.

The postponement of elections also shows INEC remains unable to solve its long-running logistical problems. But observers believe there’s a silver lining: INEC’s deliberate choice to distribute voting materials at the last possible moment is seen as part of its commitment to secure the elections.

But even though the lingering problems remain, Klein, a veteran observer of national polls in Nigeria since 2003, insists elections “are much better today.” As he puts it, the question isn’t so much as to whether Nigeria has a good electoral system, it’s whether the procedures that secure the elections will actually be followed on election day.

by Yomi Kazeem


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