During the 2023 elections, INEC had all the tools it needed to pass its own self-designed test to deliver this year’s elections credibly through technology. However, the electoral commission’s many failures have meant great losses to its credibility.
In the run-up to the 2023 elections, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) promised to deliver to Nigerians ‘the best elections ever‘. The backbone of this promise was to be its implementation of the Bimodal Voter Accreditation System (BVAS) and INEC Election Result Viewing Portal (IReV) technologies, two revolutionary tools that the commission swaggered would address the problems of overvoting and delays in result transmission. Yet, more than a month since Bola Tinubu was declared the winner, Nigerians still remain divided over the results, with different camps claiming purported victory for the first and second runners-up, Atiku Abubakar and Peter Obi, respectively. The 25 February election was the most keenly contested since 1979 so some dispute was to be expected. However, INEC’s performance left more to be desired, with logistical disruptions in certain regions forcing polls to remain open a day after election day, reports of violence and voter suppression in notable hotspots like Lagos and Rivers, and some results still yet to be uploaded more than a month after election day. Furthermore, it took INEC an agonizing six days to collate and process results before announcement, the most of any election since 1999. Simply put, INEC’s performance can be described as subpar at best and, at worst, outright shoddy. But first, it is important we properly frame INEC’s preparedness for this year’s elections, so as to fairly assess the commission’s delivery.
INEC’S RUN-OFF AND CHALLENGES WITH E-VOTING
Since INEC introduced the Permanent Voters’ Card (PVC) in the 2015 elections, Nigerian elections have become increasingly influenced by e-voting innovations. However, the 2022 Electoral Act was primed to take this trend to another level. Empowered by Section 41 of the Act, INEC opted for the BVAS as the sole means for voter accreditation and results transmission. Also, Section 3 of the Act mandated the federal government to release funds for the election at least one year prior leading to the commission receiving the bulk of its projected N305 billion fund by March 2022. Thus, for the first time in its history, INEC was able to print ballots and other election materials locally while also finalizing the acquisition of its BVAS machines months before election day.
Summarily, INEC was given all the tools needed to pass its own self-designed test to deliver this year’s elections credibly through technology. However, this lavish resource did not translate directly into electoral credibility. Some might argue this was due to the commission’s lack of experience with e-voting technologies, and indeed, INEC has made a similarly weak case. Nigeria can be considered a frontrunner in electoral technology globally. According to International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, Nigeria is one of eight African countries and one of 47 nations globally that uses technology for voter identification. While foreign experts might have praised INEC’s technological viewpoint on electoral integrity, this appreciation should not be mistaken for association. In fact, electoral technology is rarely used in the developed world with only two countries in Europe currently using biometric data for voter identification at polling stations. The comparative figure in Africa is 20.
This should come as no surprise. Underdeveloped countries have higher incidence rates of electoral malpractice and irregularities, hence the need for technological means to reduce the avenue for corruption. Electoral technologies are also rather expensive to implement, hence their lack of favor in more developed countries. INEC, for example, spent almost 40 per cent of its N305 billion budget on ICT fittings.
But above all else, the most prominent argument against electoral technology is how susceptible it can be to software security threats and its tendency to be opaque. Though it reduces the likelihood of brutish exploitation, its sophisticated nature truncates the understanding of the process by a diverse electorate, making a breach of trust more likely. And this was exactly what happened with INEC in February’s elections. But first, let us consider INEC’s positives from 25 February, as few as they may be.
INEC’S HALF BVAS
Pre-elections, BVAS was never without its shortcomings, most of which have been thoroughly explored. To INEC’s credit, it worked on addressing some of these challenges. For example, prior to 2023, BVAS struggled with voter accreditation and result transmission in areas with poor network coverage, mainly due to the voters’ register being on INEC servers. To tackle this challenge in this election, INEC created an online-offline mode for BVAS, effectively eliminating the network challenge. Basically, BVAS were preloaded with voters’ registers per polling unit to facilitate offline accreditation. They were also made capable of queuing result uploads in areas with poor connectivity, after which they could make automatic uploads of results or voters’ accreditation data once they arrived at the Registration Area Centres (RAC), or more generally, areas with better coverage.
However, though BVAS fared reasonably well with voter accreditation, this is only half the tale, or more aptly, half its job. The results transmission was another story entirely, which would begin to describe the Commission’s failures in the presidential elections.
FEVERISH IREV PERFORMANCE
Prior to 25 February, all eyes were on the BVAS, with little or no attention being paid to the INEC’s IReV. How many servers does INEC have for its IReV? What is the strength and capacity of these servers? What measures have been taken to protect them from cyber attacks? How is the system tested and audited before and after the election to ensure its reliability and accuracy? These are questions virtually no one thought to ask, and as a corollary, the commission failed to provide the answers to them.
INEC simply made overly optimistic promises of instant result transmission using the IReV and seemingly had the pretext to back their claims. In all previous use cases—Anambra, Ekiti, and Osun—result transmission was mostly seamless. Also, a few weeks before the election, they conducted a mock accreditation exercise in 436 polling units, which by many accounts was described as a success. However, these could only serve as a paltry simulation environment when compared with Nigeria’s 176,846 polling units, which would be the typical election workload. This left INEC grossly unprepared and poignantly devoid of trust from the Nigerian electorate on election day.
PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION COMPROMISED?
Without doubt, INEC’s result portal did not work as promised. However, examining the circumstances of its failures raises concerns that question the integrity of the commission itself. Firstly, the results most affected by the IReV’s inconsistencies were of the presidential elections. As of 10 p.m. on election day, no presidential result had been uploaded, and only about 14 per cent of the results were up by 9 a.m. the next day. Perhaps this was purely coincidental. INEC still did not do itself any favours with its blunt-force approach to questioning. Refusing to properly respond to various comments regarding the integrity of its processes, the commission chose to collate and announce results without a majority of them being uploaded to the portal first, putting itself in direct conflict with sections 60 and 64 of the Electoral Act, both of which directly or indirectly prescribe INEC to transmit results electronically.
But apparently, INEC is not new to such suspicious behaviour. In August 2022, there was concern over the commission redeploying a certain Chidi Nwafor (INEC’s former director of ICT) to serve as administrative secretary in Enugu. Nwafor is reputed to have led INEC’s technological revolution since 2015 with the PVC, but more pertinently, across the relatively successful employments of the BVAS with the Anambra, Osun, and Ekiti state elections. He would have been in line to lead INEC to another technological success in February. The question is, why was he redeployed? Though INEC has said otherwise, a report by Business Day citing internal sources claimed this move was due to Nwafor’s unwillingness to compromise the IReV in favour of a particular candidate. According to the report, Nwafor had put systems in place to prevent the shutdown that occurred on election day from happening but was subsequently removed due to his unflinching nature. INEC has dismissed all this as mere speculation; however, its recent failures share a contrary opinion.
DODGY RESULT SHEETS & COUNTERCLAIMS
Now, it is important to note that although BVAS accreditation addresses overvoting, it does not prevent manipulation of recorded votes within the number of accredited voters per polling unit. This is possible because, contrary to what the average Nigerian voter might think, the ballot paper is shockingly expendable. Yes, the ballot enables Nigerians to cast their votes, which are counted, and a winner is declared based in their aggregate count. However, the ballot papers have no use after this. Though section 69 of the Electoral Act instructs INEC to keep ballot papers and other election materials post-election, INEC seems to view this provision as an afterthought. Hence, ballot papers and other paper election materials are usually discarded, making the result sheets the only valid documentation of a polling unit’s results.
Historically, this has proven to be an avenue for electoral malpractice, as extra votes were just a simple figure adjustment away. The BVAS and its promise of instant result uploads was supposed to curb this, but its failure may have allowed this malpractice in the presidential elections. When results finally began trickling in, various exhibits of the form EC8As had multiple scars and changed figures. During ad-hoc staff training, participants were taught to take extra care while filling out the result sheets to avoid such errors. Thus, such extreme blotting on the uploaded results surely raises concerns. And though these have mostly been dismissed as propaganda by the victorious ruling party, their case is somewhat bolstered by reports from YIAGA Africa, which highlight discrepancies between the results declared by the commission in Rivers and Imo states and those sampled from 97 per cent of the polling units observed.
Claims, and counterclaims. Whichever way you look at it, the results of the presidential election will be continually debated. INEC could have avoided this situation by taking the legal and moral high road going by the books. This ethical failure may now cast the election’s results into the ballot of the courts, and with such unprecedented tension, risks throwing our presidential election calendar off-rails.
QUESRIONABLE BVAS RECONFIGURATION
Following INEC’s declaration of Tinubu as the winner of the general elections, Obi and the Labour Party moved swiftly to contest the results. To bolster their position in court, they sought to examine INEC’s BVAS machines to view copies of the results transmitted. However, INEC immediately made a counterclaim, seeking permission from the Appeal Court to reconfigure the BVAS for the gubernatorial elections originally marked for 11 March. Obi’s request was rejected by the court on the grounds that this viewing process would disrupt INEC’s calendar and might affect the commission’s ability to conduct the elections on the originally agreed date.
The court’s decision aside, INEC’s request to reconfigure BVAS loses credence when we consider a few things. First, based on the reports from presiding officers, the BVAS should not require any kind of reconfiguration that would result in data loss. To upload results in the February elections, INEC’s BVAS used an app called E-Transmission. This app segments the result uploads by elections, with allotments for the presidential, House of Representatives, and senate elections. There was no shared platform for either. By this, INEC could have simply updated this app to include upload options for gubernatorial and state house elections, while locking out the previous options.
Secondly, due to the delays in the presidential election, INEC was already behind its own schedule for BVAS reconfiguration. Ordinarily, this process would take between one and two weeks to complete. INEC made its request to the court barely three days before the original date for the gubernatorial elections. Clearly, it was impractical to reconfigure at this point. INEC must have known this, so it begs the question: why did the commission so adamantly insist on going on with this process, only to declare a one-week postponement to the elections barely hours after the courts had ruled in their favour?
A RESET BUTTON?
The issues surrounding INEC’s processes on 25 February seemed interminable, leaving Nigerians sceptical about them with the commission determined to remain silent. With citizens’ trust in authorities already low, INEC needed a reset button, and the 18 March gubernatorial elections appeared poised to provide just that. This time there could be no excuses, especially considering they had an extra week to prepare due to the postponement. And commendably, the commission performed considerably better in the gubernatorial elections with polls opening earlier than on 25 February during which only 27 per cent of polls had opened at INEC’s prescribed 7:30am. Additionally, the IReV operated without any notable lags or downtime, keeping up with INEC’s initial promise. However, INEC’s performance here was significantly marred by targeted violence and voters’ suppression in certain regions like Lagos and Enugu.
Though election day violence is no stranger to Nigerian elections, the peculiarity of INEC’s BVAS combined with the 2022 Electoral Act’s redefinition of overvoting made this more likely. Pre-elections, this possibility had already been hinted. The BVAS’s utilitarian functionality makes it an easy target for opposition thuggery. Simply put, by instigating violence, voter suppression or forcing overvoting, political actors can force INEC to cancel results in opposition strongholds. This happened to be the case in Amuwo-Odofin in Lagos according to a report by Stears Business. The only local government area in Lagos that the LP won in both elections, the area had the third highest voter turnout state-wide on 25 February. However, the 18 March elections saw this turnout dwindle by almost 25 per cent. This drop in turnout had a disparate effect on both dominant parties—LP and APC—with the former getting 37 per cent fewer votes and the latter obtaining 30 per cent more when compared with their performances earlier. Worse still, disruptions and over-voting led to vote cancellations in 30 polling units in the area, the highest in the state.
Vote-buying was another odious feature of the governorship elections. According to reports from the AP, votes were bought for as low as N200 ($0.43) in some parts of Enugu state. There were also reports of voters’ intimidation occurring with political thugs following voters to polling booths to see who they cast their vote for, all of this occurring in the presence of overwhelmed and, in some cases, complicit police security officers.
WHICH WAY FORWARD POST-2023?
Despite the shortcomings of the presidential and gubernatorial elections, the major positive takeaway has to be the amendments made in the 2022 Electoral Act. Though not perfect, the Act provides INEC with a framework with which it can credibly conduct Nigerian elections, provided it possesses the institutional will. However, INEC still remains impotent regarding punishing electoral misconduct. Thus, a good place to start post-elections would be to get the Electoral Offences Commission Bill passed. This piece of legislation is set to grant INEC the rights to investigate and prosecute cases of electoral offense, as opposed to the current status quo in which it cedes that responsibility to other agencies. It was supposed to have been passed as an a priori to the amended Electoral Act. However, the National Assembly failed to ascend the bill before election day. Thankfully, the current Speaker of the House, Mr Femi Gbajabiamila has made renewed commitments towards getting the bill passed into law before the end of the 9th assembly. We can only hope his promises bear results before the next off-cycle Imo and Bayelsa gubernatorial elections scheduled for 11 November.
Next, we need to get the commission to play by its own rules. The technological and legal frameworks provided by the Act are not enough, and the commission’s conduct this year is sufficient proof of that. Some have justified the commission’s behaviour regarding its disregard for its own established guidelines citing the sui generis nature of the powers of INEC, and argue for a more liberal interpretation of the legal text. However, this position unravels when you consider this as a case of first impression. The 2023 election is going to set the first precedent for how the Electoral Act would be interpreted moving forward. And consider this precedent, it is ill-fitting that the umpire of our democratic process would choose to act undemocratic in its bid to act ‘sui generis’. The 1999 Constitution grants INEC vast powers over Nigeria’s democratic process. INEC is not incorruptible, so like every power holder, it needs to be held accountable for its actions. Albeit, the nature of such checks are difficult to fathom. However, we need to start deliberating about them.
Now though the BVAS, IReV and other frameworks in place did not perform as expected, an unbiased look at their potential inspires confidence so long as the commission can demonstrate strong institutional will. With the credibility problem relatively solved, only two paths remain to electoral sabotage; vote buying and violence, with the former usually being perpetrated by agents of the latter. Thus, electoral violence is likely to increase moving forward. We need to rethink election security. Though the Electoral Commission Offences Bill has the potential to curb violence by adequately punishing perpetrators. Like with INEC, a strong political will is needed to ensure non-partisanship of state police. This is another challenge that has no easy solution. However, a fair starting point would be to ensure indiscipline of security officials is not overlooked. Furthermore, in cases of party-sponsored violence, INEC would need to put in place firmer sanctions depending on the gravity of offense, with disqualification of affiliated candidates being on the table.
BACK TO HOPING
Though the March 18 elections were a drastic improvement from the presidential elections, they remain a long way off INEC’s initial promise to deliver to Nigerians ‘the best elections ever’, or any acceptable standard of elections befitting of a modern democracy. In view of INEC’s technologically induced progress since the advent of the online voting register in 2011, the 2023 elections are the commission’s first step backwards from its antecedence coming into this election cycle. We can only hope that INEC can view this setback positively, and turn the curb again like it did after the 2007 elections⎈
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