Can technology make Nigeria’s 2023 elections more credible?

Ganiu Oloruntade
Will technology make the 2023 Nigerian elections more transparent?

Perhaps the most important question on the lips of Nigerians now is, ‘who will win the 2023 elections?’ The elections happen to be the 7th quadrennial election since the end of military rule in 1999.

President Muhammadu Buhari’s second and last four-year tenure ends in May, and 93.5 million voters are expected to elect his successor next February.

The top contenders for the nation’s top seat during the 2023 elections are Asiwaju Bola Tinubu of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), Atiku Abubakar of the main opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), and Peter Obi of the Labour Party (LP).

2023 election
Image Source: Flickr.

If anything, Nigeria’s presidency is a difficult job at this time, with almost half of the country’s population living in poverty, worsening insecurity, rising unemployment, and a fluctuating currency. Nigeria is also battling devastating floods that have killed more than 600 people and displaced 1.3 million others. Whoever becomes president after the 2023 elections certainly has a lot of work to do.

Read also: Can social media really influence the 2023 elections in Nigeria?

A rundown of elections and technology in Nigeria

Since Nigeria’s independence in 1960, elections have always been held manually. Manual voting is characterized by voter registration, ballots, and voting processes which involve thumb printing the ballot paper and sticking it in a ballot box. The electoral body, INEC, would then collate, count, and announce the winners of the polls.

However, the masses have almost always questioned the elections’ credibility due to allegations of malpractice. Some individuals have raised the need for digital technologies to improve the reliability of the electoral process.

In 2007, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) introduced the direct data capture (DDC) method for voter registration for the elections held that year. With the DDC, INEC had hoped to eliminate double registration, double voting, and other electoral malpractices.

However, the eventual conduct of the 2007 polls was widely criticized and adjudged fraudulent by local and international observers. The winner of the 2007 presidential elections, ex-president Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, admitted that the exercise “had shortcomings”.

In 2011, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) introduced the Automated Fingerprint Identification system. But, the technology also fell short of expectations: it could only create a digital register to erase double registration. It was incapable of verifying the identity of voters at the polling stations.

In the buildup to the 2015 elections, INEC introduced the permanent voter’s card (PVC) and smart card reader technology in an apparent effort to minimize election fraud and rigging. Touted as a game-changer, the smart card reader’s introduction has helped reduce electoral fraud, according to experts.

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

In 2020, the electoral body introduced INEC Election Result Viewing Portal (IReV), enabling Nigerians to view polling unit results in real-time as voting ends on election day. The following year, INEC launched the Bimodal Voter Accreditation System (BVAS) to eliminate identity thefts on election days, i.e using another person’s Permanent Voter Card.

The cutting-edge technology was first deployed for the Isoko South Constituency 1 bye-election in Delta State and the Anambra governorship election, held last September. Nigerians expect it to play a major role in the upcoming 2023 elections.

IReV and BVAS, though with their own challenges, will address the weaknesses in Nigeria’s election result management process, according to INEC. The recent governorship polls held in Ekiti and Osun states also witnessed the use of both technologies.

“BVAS in particular is a very good development and bound to be a good complement to the on-paper electorates system of accreditation, thereby effectively eliminating voters fraud. Also, the use of such technological innovations will improve electorates’ voting experience and in hindsight, our electioneering process.”

Fawaz Olowora, a writer and political observer told Technext.
2023 election, the BVAS question and why Nigeria can’t afford to lose technology in the age of technology
BVAS. Credit: The Cable/Ibrahim Mansur

The passage of the amended Electoral Act ahead of the 2023 elections is another step toward ensuring the credibility of elections. Despite the initial rejection by the Nigerian Senate, the new law provides for the electronic transmission of results. Days ago, INEC published the list of registered voters for the 2023 elections on its website.

Research has found that the application of digital technology, to some extent, has enhanced the quality of elections in Nigeria, albeit with its setbacks tied to technology failure and structural and systemic problems. In its review of the last general elections in 2019, INEC admitted that deploying technology during the polls came with some challenges.

Interestingly, INEC isn’t alone in the quest to revolutionize the electoral process in Nigeria. Last week, Lagos-based data and intelligence company Stears launched an open data project ahead of the 2023 elections. Stears Elections is designed to organise all of Nigeria’s election data, including polling units, information on candidates, and past results.

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

Still, Nigeria isn’t ready for electronic voting

Electronic voting, better known as “e-voting,” is a voting system developed nations have adopted to enhance electoral processes. Poised to make voting effortless and eliminate voter fraud, e-voting is fast becoming a feature of democracies across the globe. In 2014, Namibia became the first African nation to adopt e-voting.

On the home front, e-voting was deployed during the 2018 local government elections in Kaduna State, marking the first time the technology would be adopted for electoral purposes in Nigeria. Kaduna used e-voting machines for the second time during its local government polls in 2021. Though imperfect, the move demonstrated that e-voting could be used for national elections in Nigeria.

An article by Zeenat Sambo for Premium Times notes that “besides revolutionising the entire electoral/voting process, digitalisation of the electoral management system would attract more startups to develop innovative market-reaching solutions capable of generating wealth and creating employment opportunities.”

E-voting machines. Image Source: Premium Times.

But, despite the push for digitization by civil society organizations and other stakeholders, Nigeria – Africa’s largest democracy – isn’t particularly ready for electronic voting, at least for now.

Experts have identified challenges confronting the pre-adoption of e-voting technology in Nigeria, including inadequate funding, lack of IT specialists, erratic electricity supply, growing level of cybercrime, and gender imbalance access to ICT.

While the demand for e-voting is understandable, the readiness of the Nigerian electoral system for the technology must be considered. “If appropriate mechanisms are not in place, such as legal regulations, harmonisation, logistical and institutional structures, technological and infrastructural facilities, the benefits of e-voting may eventually erode Nigeria’s waning trust in the election process,” writes Nicholas Aderinto, Writing Fellow at the African Liberty.

However, INEC Chairman, Prof Mahmood Yakubu recently disclosed ahead of the 2023 elections that Nigeria is edging closer to embracing e-voting fully, saying the country already met three out of the four requirements for the process.

Technology doesn’t solve everything

A political scientist, who asked not to be named, told Technext that though the attempt at technologizing the 2023 elections will make the outcome more transparent, polls’ integrity will be tested.

“We should be careful not to fetishize the ‘technologization of elections’ and also remember that these technologies can be and have ways of being manipulated, especially in a neo-patrimonial and corrupt system like ours. These technologies have backend systems where human beings like me and you operate, hence making them open to manipulation.”

For Olowora, using technology in the 2023 elections will inspire confidence among the electorate. “Though it will heavily rely on the credibility of next year’s election because factors other than technology would play into determining whether voting Nigerians trust INEC come 2023,” he added.

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