2023 elections: the BVAS question and why Nigeria can’t afford to lose in the age of tech

Ejike Kanife
One could rightly conclude that BVAS is the pivot upon which the possibility of free and fair elections rests in Nigeria…
Despite INEC technology failure, Young Nigerians still want to be involved in the electoral process
Credit: The Cable/Ibrahim Mansur

It is the election season in Nigeria and with 2023 fast approaching, the air is abuzz with the familiar jingles and rhetorics resonating from various quarters as people and groups drum up support for their preferred candidates, or vilification against others.

One such rhetoric is the claim by the Coalition of United Political Parties (CUPP) that the chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission, Mahmood Yakubu, and some key members of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) are under intense pressure to discard the Bimodal Voter Accreditation System (BVAS) and not use it in the forthcoming election.

“We have been tipped off by our intelligence both inside the APC and the camp of the Governors in the conspiracy, and we can state that the opposition is in receipt of information that the INEC leadership, especially senior officials, are being put under immense pressure to abandon the use of the BVAS machine, result transmission and in particular to deactivate the BVAS from the server, an alleged dangerous request which if ever granted under any circumstances can throw Nigeria into pre and post-election crises and will be unacceptable to Nigerian voters, especially the youths who have renewed confidence in the electoral process.” – CUPP statement.

The allegations have since drawn the ire of many Nigerians who have taken to social media and other platforms to vent their frustration at the ruling party for purportedly doing all in its power to undermine the forthcoming elections.

Most of the complaints emanated from the camp of Labour Party’s Peter Obi who has become so popular, three polls that have been released show him winning by some serious margin. This suggests that given a free and fair election, he could emerge as Nigeria’s next president, a situation that would be hugely embarrassing to the ruling APC and its candidate, Bola Ahmed Tinubu.

What has the Bimodal Voter Accreditation System (BVAS) got to do with all this?

BVAS: Nigeria’s most cutting-edge election technology

Nigeria’s electoral history has been riddled with instances of malpractice, massive and shameless rigging, and other electoral crimes that have long created huge voter apathy and loss of confidence in the overall electoral system. Not even the introduction of the card reader was able to stem rigging as that system allows people to vote even when the reader fails to read their thumbs.

But BVAS was introduced and after a shaky start, it is proving to be a game changer. It is the single electoral device solving a myriad of problems in the electoral process. Firstly, it is the device used for capturing biometrics like fingerprints and facial recognition during voter registration. This information is stored in the Permanent Voters Card (PVC).

On election day, the BVAS proves it is truly a bimodal device because it works as a two-factor authentication system during accreditation. First, it verifies the thumbprint and even if that fails as it does many times with the card reader, it would then verify by facial recognition. Either of both modes or factors must be authenticated for the PVC wielded to exercise their franchise.

2023 elections: the BVAS question and why Nigeria can’t afford to lose in the age of tech
Nigerians with their PVC on election day. Source: France 24

“There is no way anybody can vote two times in this country again. It is not possible. The machine is there, you bring your voter’s card, and they match it to the machine because your name and particulars have been configured into that machine. The card is placed side by side with the machine; your particulars would come up and if your particular did not come up, it means you don’t belong to that particular unit.

“Now suppose it comes up and your fingerprints did not show up, your facial did not come up which means it strayed into that machine, you will not vote and as you put your fingerprints and it marks good and the machine records you. If your fingerprint fails, they will take your photographs and the moment the machine is placed before you, it records that you are the authentic owner of the card and you’re given a ballot to vote.” INEC chairman Mahmood Yakubu

Finally, the BVAS will be responsible for uploading election results in real-time to the INEC result viewing portal (IReV) where it could be accessed by anybody. With all these features and expectations, one could rightly conclude that BVAS is the pivot upon which the possibility of free and fair elections rests in Nigeria. 

According to INEC, more than 2,000 BVAS would be deployed across 176,000 polling units across the country for the 2023 general election.

BVAS usage entails either scanning the barcode/QR code on the PVC/Voter’s register or entering the last six digits of the Voter Identity Number or typing in the last name of the voter by the Assistant Presiding Officer (APO 1) to verify and authenticate the voter.

Doing away with tech in the age of tech

In February 2022, exactly one year before the 2023 elections, President Muhammadu Buhari signed the amended Electoral Act 2022 into law. The most important provision of the amended act is that it appears to give the INEC full powers to decide on electronic verification and electronic transmission of election results.

But that didn’t come without resistance.

2023 elections: the BVAS question and why Nigeria can’t afford to lose in the age of tech
A voter in Nigeria looking at the voters’ register at the polling unit location. Source: Unsplash

The Nigerian lawmakers proved to be the fiercest agitators against the electronic transmission of results. From total rejection, the lawmakers grudgingly accepted but with a caveat; the power to decide if INEC should implement electronic transmission for any particular election should rest with the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) and, not surprisingly, the Nigerian lawmakers themselves.

But following a general outcry from Nigerians, the senate yielded and allowed the INEC full powers to decide on electronic verification and transmission, by any means it deems fit.

 While the claims by CUPP that the ruling APC is bent on forcing the abandonment of BVAS in the 2023 elections are yet allegations at the moment, it is important to note that the wordings of the electoral act itself are ambiguous enough to warrant real trepidation.

While its wordings empower the INEC to carry out accreditation with BVAS, it also gives the same INEC the power to decide against it.

2023 elections: the BVAS question and why Nigeria can’t afford to lose in the age of tech
A screenshot of the new Electoral Act

Thus, all it takes for INEC to decide against electronic transmission is for the commission’s chief to say the word. It is therefore not surprising that the CUPP is also accusing the ruling APC of trying to unseat the current chairman of INEC and several other senior officials to make way for new ones more willing to not deploy BVAS while also calling off the electronic transmission.

This calls to question why the amended act couldn’t be more specific in the area of which kinds of technology ought to be deployed and when. For one, there’s no mention of BVAS in the amended law, which by the way, still has the now outdated “card reader” very much spelt out. 

Indeed, Section 47, subsection 2 says: 

To vote, the presiding officer shall use a SMART CARD READER or any other technological device that may be prescribed by the Commission, for the accreditation of voters, to verify, confirm or authenticate the particulars of the intending voter in the manner prescribed by the Commission.

What this essentially means is that, if the commission, or its key officers, for whatever reasons or lack of, decide not to use BVAS, they would be right because the law only expressly made provisions for smart card readers. 

In the same vein, for transmission of results, Section 60, subsection 5 of the Electoral Act doesn’t expressly make provisions for electronic transmission. It only says: The presiding officer shall transfer the results including the total number of accredited voters and the results of the ballot IN A MANNER as prescribed by the Commission.

2023 elections: the BVAS question and why Nigeria can’t afford to lose in the age of tech
Screenshot of the Electoral Act on the transmission of results

Thus, it seems all it takes to take Nigeria from 2023 and back to 1993 as far as electoral technology is concerned, is for the electoral chairman to decide that it must be so. This is hardly a great way of entrenching technology in the electoral process.

I spoke with two legal practitioners about these concerns. Francis, a Portharcourt-based lawyer says while it may seem like the provisions of the Act do not expressly state that BVAS should be used, the durability of this legislation however needs to be tested in a court of law.

“This particular issue can only be tested in court. And it depends on the argument of the lawyer. In law, there is what you call the ‘Ejusdem Generis’ rule. It means that if something is expressly mentioned, every other thing coming after could also be deemed in line with that same thing.”

He explained that as smartcard has been mentioned expressly and the room has been given for other technology applications as deemed fit by the commission, now the commission on its own had brought out BVAS. It means that BVAS is also in line with the provision of the law which falls under the Ejusdem Generis rule. Therefore though BVAS is not expressly mentioned, the express mention of a smartcard reader also makes any other technology valid.

An Abuja-based lawyer, Michael also agrees that the new piece of legislation needs to be tested in a court of law. According to him, since no court has made a pronouncement on the BVAS, it will be difficult to attain a clear legal perspective. Asked if INEC would be wrong in the eyes of the law if it decides to do away with BVAS, Michael said no.

“INEC can’t be wrong to jettison the use of BVAS since it isn’t expressly listed. While INEC reserves the discretion to use whatever technology it deems fit for whatever purpose, my concern is that non-feasibility might lead INEC to resort to manual. It might cite any reason.”

He noted that election time is fixed. It isn’t something that is continuous, rather, there is just one day for elections. Therefore there’s very limited time for INEC to work on fixing whatever infrastructural problems might arise. He says this is the argument that people seeking to abrogate the use of BVAS might capitalise on.

“Our law, as you can see, is heavily dependent on technology. But the institutional framework and infrastructure are not there to sustain the technology. The lack of infrastructure is a ready excuse to manipulate the system,” he finished.

2023 elections: the BVAS question and why Nigeria can’t afford to lose in the age of tech
Voters at the polling unit in Norther Nigeria. Source: SkyNews

Nonetheless, Section 47, Part 3 of the legislation states that if a card reader or any other technology deployed in a polling unit fails to function and a replacement couldn’t be found, voting has to be cancelled at that polling unit and be rescheduled in the future, if the results from such a place(s) could influence the overall outcome. Yet, it could be argued that this could lead to disenfranchisement.

In conclusion

While other progressive countries are looking for ways to improve their electoral systems through technology, Nigeria seems to be playing carrot-and-stick with its own. Nigeria can’t be seen to be discarding its own milestones, especially when those achievements have proven to be very beneficial and have greatly improved our electoral system.

While the BVAS system suffered some flaws when it was first deployed in the Isoko South Constituency 1 bye-election in Delta State, as well as the Anambra gubernatorial election last year, INEC has since overcome those challenges. 

Indeed, recent elections which were held in Ekiti and Osun states presented the country with some of the finest elections it has witnessed in recent years. And at the centre of it all was BVAS which was deployed for accreditation as well as the transmission of electoral results in real-time.

Those elections marked a very important milestone for the country on its electoral journey and under no circumstances should the advancements recorded be reversed. On the contrary, they deserve to be built on. And it should start by entrenching our electoral technological advancements into the law. 

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