Nigeria is not ready for electronic voting

Although each general election in Nigeria has a unique narrative, one constant is the prevalence of violence and rigging. This has been the monkey on the back of Nigeria’s democracy since 1999, and with each passing regime, the antagonists have found different ways of undermining the credibility of our elections. So much so that Nigerians will tell you that our only free, fair and credible election was held in 1993.

As technology creeps into more facets of Nigerian life, we ask a simple question: to what extent can it save Nigeria’s electoral process?


Internet Penetration in Nigeria

To answer this, we can first scope out the nature of the options available, and very quickly eliminate virtual or remote voting. Internet penetration in Nigeria was 62 million in January 2019, representing about a third of the population. Incredibly, the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) records this number as 38 million just a year ago, and this jump in the statistic raises questions about measurement methodology.  

Internet Subscriber Data is more promising. Nigeria had 144 million mobile subscribers at the start of 2019. However, it is essential to recognise that the top five states account for 35% of subscribers—with 14% in Lagos alone—and this data reflects the fact that many Nigerians hold data subscriptions with more than one mobile network.

The reality is that not enough Nigerians are connected to the internet yet. For example, Bauchi State has 2.5 million registered voters, and at least 1.1 million of these voted in the Presidential elections. But the state only has 2 million mobile internet subscribers. For internet technology to really help Nigeria’s elections, we need to improve technology infrastructure and penetration to ensure people are not excluded.  


How has technology been used in Nigerian elections?

Every Nigerian presidential election has allegedly been rigged, dating back to 1999. A report by the Carter Center on the 1999 elections concluded by saying, “This transition process fell short of its democratic objectives. Electoral irregularities, including fraud and vote rigging, that our observers and others in the field witnessed are cause for serious concern.”

In 1999, in the absence of a database of voters, registration was done manually. Subsequently, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) decided to incorporate technology in the electoral process by introducing Direct Data Capture Machine (DDCM), Electronic Voters’ Register (EVR), Smart Card Reader (SCR) and e-collation which were launched in the last decade. 

In 2003, the use of Optical Magnetic Recognition technology made it easier to carry out voter registration, but the system suffered from the absence of a robust database of voters and our inability to develop an electronic register. The Direct Data Capture Machines (DDCM) were deployed for voter registration in 2007. This was done to resolve issues such as multiple voter registrations and electoral malpractices with the use of computers for data capture, scanners and devices to ensure transparent voter registration. It was mostly successful as it was able to eliminate issues like double registration and voting. However, the lack of training in the use of this technology resulted in its lack of deployment in sorting, counting and collation of results.

The 2011 elections attempted to consolidate the successes of the 2007 election with an improved Automated Fingerprints Identification System deployed in several polling units to rid the register of multiple registrants while an Electronic Voters’ Register was also generated.

Finally, the 2015 elections marked a considerable improvement in the use of technology as the automated fingerprints identification system was supported by INEC’s Voters Identification System (IVAS) popularly called the Smart Card Reader (SCR). The Temporary Voters’ Cards (TVCs) which were issued to voters for the 2011 election were replaced with the Permanent Voter Cards (PVCs).


The Kaduna Experiment

The Kaduna State Independent Electoral Commission (SIECOM) conducted elections to elect Local Government Chairmen and Councillors in May 2018 for its local government areas (LGA) by using Electronic Voting Machines after understudying the Brazilian system. Nasir El-Rufai, the state governor, argued that the system was to “promote transparency and electoral integrity”.

After the initial hiccups associated with expected from a pioneer project, the process was largely successful as it was easy to use and quick.

The Kaduna experiment tells us a few things: (1) We can hold free and fair elections that are won by opposition candidates as four local governments in the elections were won by the opposition. (2) Elections can be conducted promptly and smoothly if the process was less manual. (3) Nigeria can save money if we ditch the paper method and use electronic voting machines.

Obviously, there is a big difference between LGA elections in Kaduna and presidential elections. Luckily, INEC has four years to prepare Nigerians (and itself) for this change, and a few off-cycle gubernatorial elections to use as pilots.


Will Nigerians trust the process?

The average Nigerian voter does not believe her vote will count. She has been scarred by years of violence, rigging, and predictability. The numbers reflect this: Voter turnout was 52% in 1999, 69% in 2003, 57% in 2007, 54% in 2011 and 44% in 2015, and 35% in 2019.

This is why tests are so important. The Kaduna experiment will inspire some confidence, but Nigerians are unlikely to buy-in until the system has been used at the state level, at least. Trust is a scarce commodity in Nigerian politics, but that it is possible to implement electronic voting in Nigeria as long as the process is transparent. Not all stakeholders will be open to these changes. While the electoral yearns for free and fair elections, the political class simply wants to win.

Alternatively, the new system can be used in tandem with the old. Nigeria can learn from the Indian and Namibian and apply a Voter-Verified Paper Audit Trail for every vote cast by a voter whereby any vote cast is verified by a count of the paper trail to prevent election fraud.

The experience of previous elections and the success of the Kaduna experiment show the sheer potential of increased use of technology. However, with poor internet penetration and quality, strong voter apathy, and little political will, Nigeria is not quite ready for E-voting.