Ever since the inception of electronic voting across the globe, there has been a decline in the use of manual voting with ballot papers. This innovation has become a major part of electoral activities, not only in the Western world but also in Africa, with countries like Namibia and South Africa leading the way.

This evolution in e-voting is also evident in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation. The country’s presidential democracy is second only to the USA in terms of the number of registered voters.

 

Historic Election

Since the inception of democratic governance in 1999, election-related crime, from violence to vote-rigging, have bedevilled Nigeria, especially at the point of results collation.

The 2015 elections were historic in a number of ways. They were the most tightly contested in the country’s history, with analysts describing it as a closely fought contest among Nigeria’s ‘political gladiators’. For the first time, an incumbent president was defeated in the polls, exploding the belief that African leaders tenaciously cling to power despite being defeated in elections.

It was also the country’s first technology-compliant election, owing to the use of biometric permanent voters’ cards (PVCs) and smart-card reader (SCR) machines.

PVC card reader machine. Photo Ventures Africa

However, there were multiple reports of technical glitches in the voting process, particularly the failure of electronic voter card readers, which were used to verify registered voters. In some states, elections had to be suspended until the next day, which prevented some voters from casting their ballots.

Read: Why the 2002 Kenyan elections remain a point of reference

Despite these initial hitches and distractions, the use of PVCs and SCRs inspired trust and confidence. Voters felt that their votes counted at the end of the day and made the elections a more credible electoral process, to a certain extent.

As Nigeria plans to go to the polls again in 2019, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), the country’s election umpire, having learnt from its experience during the last general elections, has begun devising means of improving its SCRs and PVCs so that they work optimally and efficiently and conform to the global standards of electronic voting.

The Nigerian Air Force (NAF) has offered to assist the INEC by deploying personnel and materials

Technology-based elections in 2019

Ahead of the 2019 general election, the INEC has been doing all it can to replace the manual voting process with the latest technologies.

“We can no longer continue to conduct elections manually in Nigeria; we must introduce modern technology as is being done in other countries,” INEC chairman Prof Mahmmod Yakubu said in an interview. “Very soon the use of technology for the conduct of local elections in the country will be mandatory.”

On 30 March 2017, the Nigerian Senate passed amendments to the Electoral Act 2010, formally subscribing to electronic voting in the conduct of future elections in the country.

“We have introduced electronic voting through any technology INEC deems fit,” said Abubakar Kyari, a Senator representing the Borno North senatorial district, after the Bill scaled through.

Major highlights of the Bill include a provision for the use of SCRs by INEC, the power to modify the voting process if there is a challenge, and the use of ‘any technological device’ for accreditation.

If the proposed Bill is approved by the president, Nigeria will no longer make use of ballot papers during its elections.

The INEC is not resting its oars, however: It commenced a nationwide Continuous Voter Registration (CVR) on Thursday, 27 April 2017, in each of the 774 local government areas (LGAs) across the 36 states of Nigeria. It also put arrangements in place to cater for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in the northeast of the country, many of whom have lost their voter cards as a result of their forced relocation.

The Nigerian Air Force (NAF) has offered to assist the INEC by deploying personnel and materials. It has also pledged to arrest any security challenges capable of affecting the exercise, particularly in the LGAs that have been worst hit by the Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram since 2009.

Nigerian Air Force(NAF) in Borno helping to air lift INEC staff to Kala balge, one of those difficult LGAs in terms of security challenges for the CVR2017 exercise. Photo INEC facebook

Challenges

While it may be revolutionary that Africa’s giant is joining the ranks of advanced countries that have adopted the electronic voting systems, there are still a number of challenges confronting the widespread use of these election technologies, such as machine glitches, hacking and low broadband penetration, especially in rural areas.

Nigeria has one of the lowest broadband penetration rates in the world. Many regions in the country cannot boast of a good network for phone calls, let alone access to the Internet.

The issue of hacking is so problematic that some countries which adopted electronic voting in their electoral processes have since discontinued it.

Read: Signs of violence ahead of Kenya’s 2017 elections

The issue of hacking is so problematic that some countries which adopted electronic voting in their electoral processes have since discontinued it.

Nigeria’s PVC card readers have been said to have a cloud feature which enables the data they have collated to be stored safely in INEC’s central electronic system, which can then be viewed online. However, there is no guarantee that the system cannot be hacked and the figures manipulated.

Dr Tola Odubajo, an expert in international relations and comparative politics, noted that with these challenges the INEC would need to do its homework ahead of the elections.

“If the INEC is serious about e-voting, it should test the electronic machines in mock elections. The results collated can then be compared and improvements can be made,” he said. “The INEC should to take a cue from the last 2015 polls and create a mass enlightenment programme through the media to enlighten a higher percentage of eligible voters who do not understand the process of e-voting.”