The challenges experienced in using INEC’s Bimodal Voter Accreditation System at the Anambra, Ekiti, and Osun gubernatorial elections raise concerns about it being sufficient for nationwide voting. Is Nigeria ready for BVAS-only elections?
Since its return to democracy in 1999, Nigeria’s electoral process can be said to be a progressive experiment by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) as each election cycle sees the electoral management body introduce new technological elements to improve its ability to conduct free, fair, and credible elections.
Nigeria has come a long way from the open ballot system, used before 2007, to the permanent voter’s card and electronic voter’s register in 2011. However, these features pale in comparison to the changes heralded by the Electoral Act of 2022. Outside addressing challenges like logistical problems and the lack of inclusivity for persons with disability, the Electoral Act licenses INEC to provide ballot boxes, electronic voting machines, or any other voting devices for the conduct of elections. The legislation also sees the introduction of the Bimodal Voter Registration System (BVAS), which has already received significant attention, but deserves careful examination as the outcome of the 2023 elections depends on its implementation.
WHAT IS BVAS AND WHY IS IT IMPORTANT FOR 2023?
A technological descendant of the Smart Card Readers used in 2015, the Bimodal Voter Accreditation Systems (BVAS) is a biometric device that uses fingerprint/facial recognition technology, and six digits of the secure Voter Identification Number (VIN) to authenticate voters.
In simple terms, the BVAS is a two-factor verification system to checkmate overvoting and other voting irregularities commonplace in our elections. INEC first declared its intent to use the technology in April 2022, a decision that was welcomed as a stroke of genius by some and met with criticism by others—mainly party leaders who deemed it de trop. Though INEC’s altruism in introducing the BVAS is not lost, it remains to be seen whether it can translate into a credible election today.
The BVAS has had multiple chances to shine but has only dimmed its light each time. First used on a wide scale in the 2021 Anambra state elections, the BVAS technology was met with diverse challenges, leading to Anambra’s current governor, Charles Soludo, declaring it a ‘complete failure’. Similar comments were made regarding its deployment in the 2022 Ekiti elections, but no harder blow has been dealt to its integrity than the recent victory recall by the Osun State tribunal.
WHAT ARE THE CHALLENGES WITH INEC’S BVAS?
In Anambra, the BVAS struggled to recognize older faces, or more pertinently, voters who had aged since their PVC capture. This is due to the technology’s heavy reliance on AI facial recognition algorithms, which typically take equidistant measurements between facial features. This challenge is not new; studies over the last decade have established this struggle, with some reporting facial recognition algorithms being unable to identify individuals with as little as a five-year gap. If this persists, it can lead to voter disenfranchisement among Nigeria’s ageing population, as might have been the case in Anambra.
Another technological challenge faced by the BVAS technology in Anambra and also in Osun was in the transmission of results due to its over-reliance on 4G connectivity. This is a major weakness of the BVAS technology, particularly in the Nigerian context. Currently, Nigeria ranks 93rd in Ookla’s global internet speed rankings with median download and upload speeds around 21.54mbps and 10.10mbps; speeds more akin to 3G connectivity rather than the 4G or nascent 5G local providers parade. Though the exact connection speeds required for the BVAS to operate are unknown, internet lag is only half the problem.
Nigeria’s largest telecommunication giant, MTN, boasts of just under 80 per cent 4G coverage. This is better than the 60 per cent obtainable during the Anambra elections, however, this fraction for internet penetration can be deceiving as 61 per cent of rural dwellers in Nigeria still lack any kind of internet connection. The majority of Nigerians without internet access also live in rural areas. Yet, INEC’s only publicly declared backup to probable hitches at the polls are backup BVAS machines. Perhaps, INEC has developed a secret strategy to address this issue the public is not yet privy to but in the absence of evidence for this, we can only assume the negative.
We have to question the reputed success of the technology so far and whether it can achieve significant progress, especially today. In Anambra, when the system failed due to connectivity issues, INEC staff could simply make short trips to neighbouring towns with better 4G connectivity to send results. Anambra is the second smallest state in Nigeria with a land mass of 4,844 km², Ekiti and Osun trail ahead with 6,353 km² and 9,251 km² respectively. Yet, in all three cases, there were reports of ad-hoc staff who experienced difficulty transmitting results. All three states aggregate to just a little over the size of Gombe (18,768 km2), the smallest state in the North.
Due to connectivity infrastructural challenges, the voter accreditation system is largely geospatially dependent. On 04 February, the INEC held mock accreditation exercises in 436 polling units nationwide. Though commendable, this small-scale approach would not have put the BVAS under the stress typical to proper election workloads. If anything, this exercise could only count as an adequate sample size to identify this issue. Due to the system’s geospatial dependence, we may see moderate success with the BVAS in southern states, but it might pose a challenge in the North, as land mass and security concerns may strain INEC’s efforts.
WHAT HAPPENED IN OSUN?
The ongoing debacle between INEC and the Osun State tribunal over the latter’s reversal of the PDP flagbearer’s victory provides real-time insight into the system’s credibility. The Tribunal cited over-voting in over 700 polling units during the state’s gubernatorial election in July 2022, raising questions about the reputed infallibility of the BVAS, as despite INEC’s efforts, both APC and PDP were discovered to have instigated over-voting in the affected polling units. Contrary to popular opinion, BVAS did not fail. It was compromised by the human element, similar to how our elections have been gamed by ballot stuffing and the abuse of incidence forms in the past.
The BVAS tackles over-voting through a simple process; on election day, voters are accredited by the machine using its fingerprint/facial recognition features, or the last six digits from their VINs before voting begins. If found in the system as registered, voters are then directed to polling booths for thumb printing on ballot papers. As this happens, BVAS automatically updates INEC’s servers with the number of accredited voters. The presiding officer has to ensure these updates are done completely and correctly.
In all this, it is crucial for the numbers between registered voters in a polling unit, accredited voters, and cast votes to be in accordance. When this does not happen, over-voting is said to have occurred. Notably, the voiding process for over-voting is inauspiciously manual as Section 64 of the 2022 Electoral Act provides that presiding and collating officers have to flag such compromised results as ‘rejected’. This is the loophole that led to the situation in Osun.
CAN BVAS PROTECT OUR ELECTORAL PROCESS?
This question is important as INEC has decided to use only the BVAS as the ‘end all and be all’ of voting in today’s election. Based on its utilitarian function, INEC intends to deploy one BVAS per polling unit; since the system can accredit voters, facilitate voting, and also transmit results, the sole use of it would limit the chances of vandalization, and in cases of over-voting, simplify the decision to void votes.
However, there are two major ways to compromise an election: by vote inflation and other such electoral malpractice. There’s also disenfranchisement (voter suppression by discouraging opposition votes by violence, etc.). Though BVAS theoretically eliminates the first, a case can be made for it involuntarily making the second more likely. Pre-, mid- and post-electoral violence has been a common feature in most of Nigeria’s electoral history. These kinds of violence are directed towards discouraging certain voting blocks from showing up at the polls or disrupting elections to attack opposition strongholds.
INEC’s choice to deploy a single BVAS may see the creation of a new problem. The voter accreditation system’s utilitarian nature makes it an easy target for maleficent actors, whereas in the past they would have had to attack several election materials, but now they need to attack just one. In an unlikely, theoretical nonviolent alternative, they could force over-voting in favour of the opposition candidate to force INEC to void the votes in these strongholds.
BVAS aims to tackle specific challenges with our elections, but its existence creates other avenues for electoral malpractice—like vote buying, which INEC needs to be wary of.
MAKING THE MOST OF ELECTION DAY
To reconcile the promises the BVAS holds and the harsh realities of its current shortcomings, the Anambra, Ekiti, and Osun elections serve as lessons for INEC. It is foolhardy to believe BVAS alone would be sufficient to cover all electoral needs in Nigeria, especially when taking into account the aforementioned challenges. To put it succinctly, Nigeria is not ready for BVAS-only elections. Nevertheless, considering INEC’s decision, here are a few suggestions towards making the most of the elections.
First, INEC must prepare adequately for low-network coverage areas. Commenting on the mock accreditation exercise, Samson Itodo of YIAGA Africa hinted at this avenue for BVAS failure, citing poor internet connectivity as a major drawback to technology’s success on election day. He also advised INEC to look into cases where the BVAS fails to accredit voters despite being registered. Previously, YIAGA Africa reported BVAS malfunctions in 45 per cent of the polling units in the Anambra elections, with machines being replaced in 1 per cent of these cases, fixed in 39 per cent, and not fixed or replaced in the remaining 5 per cent. Based on the results from the just concluded mock exercises, not much seems to have changed. And like in the case of Anambra, presiding officers may have to resort to manual accreditation, despite this being a direct violation of INEC’s guidelines.
This can open the door for some degree of malpractice. Hence, in these low-coverage locations, INEC has to prepare for manual accreditation. A credible way to go would be to use the National Identification Number (NIN). Since the BVAS contains voter registers per polling unit, utilizing the NIN as a means of secondary verification to corroborate voters’ identities might be the only way forward for INEC. With elections being only days away, this might be the only way to curb over-voting in these areas, or at least minimize voter disenfranchisement.
As stated, there is no immediate solution to address BVAS failure due to geospatial dependence. INEC needs to prepare for secondary voter accreditation without the BVAS, as well as result transmission in connectivity-challenged areas. The safety of INEC staff outside of the booth would be critical until they could safely relocate to towns with adequate 4G connectivity for transmission. Again, as with secondary accreditation plans, this cannot be an afterthought. A possible avenue to making these seamless would be to employ teams consisting of local security outfits led by state police officials for this role.
INEC claims to have learnt from their mistakes in Osun and declared it would now transmit results and voters’ accreditation data in the same breath moving forward, but it needs to employ an automated mechanism to spot cases of over-voting right out of the gate. This system would act as a failsafe for the electoral body after the results have been uploaded. The loophole in Osun was a result of scrupulous presiding and collating officers who refused to void results from the affected polling units.
In all use cases so far, there have been accreditation challenges with some voters being absent from the registers at their polling unit. This has been the case for voters who transferred their polling unit to where they are domiciled. These issues were still encountered by INEC during the mock exercise conducted earlier this month.
Commendably, INEC created 56,782 more polling units to remove units from potential flashpoints or places with potential conflicts of interest like the homes of traditional rulers and religious buildings, in a bid to decongest some overpopulated units, ease the voting process and ensure the polls close on time. This has seen the numbers in polling units dwindle to more realistic numbers, and is likely to be a game changer today.
Furthermore, the penalties outlined in the 2022 Electoral Act for unlawful conduct by ad hoc staff need to be taken more seriously. Electoral offenders need to know they will not be getting away with merely a slap on the wrist. Historically, INEC has been largely incompetent in prosecuting electoral offenders, citing arrest, investigation, and prosecution as features outside its purview of operation. The Commission has also blamed its inability on National Assembly’s sluggard’s stance towards passing the Electoral Offences Commission Bill which would afford it the power to ‘investigate, arrest and persecute’ offenders in liaison with the Attorney General. However, in the absence of these powers, a renewed emphasis needs to be laid on creating cross-organizational networks between the electoral body, the Police, and other security agencies.
With insecurity and terrorism in the North East and Biafran separatist groups in the South, the 2023 elections are expected to be the most heated since 1999. The International Crisis Group analysed potential flashpoints for this year’s election, highlighting Lagos, Rivers, Kano, Kaduna, Ebonyi, and Imo. Already, there have been over 50 recorded acts of political violence, since campaigns began in September 2022. The likelihood of violence to disenfranchise targeted voting groups is bound to increase due to the utilitarian nature of the BVAS. More than ever, INEC would require a concerted effort between federal and state security forces to meet the security challenges the 2023 elections pose.
With the 2023 presidential election already underway, any hopes of steering away from a BVAS-only election may be overly optimistic. The BVAS would face its most rigorous test today and on 11 March. Credit must be given to INEC for its technophilic vision, but by introducing BVAS, the electoral body has embarked on a relatively uncharted territory; making bold claims based mainly on its results from small–scale experiments in the Anambra, Osun, and Ekiti gubernatorial elections.
Though short of perfection, it is INEC’s latest attempt to see if Nigeria can have credible elections. Post elections, we can only hope it leaves us with more answers than questions⎈
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