By Adagbo Onoja
Technology, argued Professor Isawa Elaigwu in a recent interview with this newspaper, will take Africa out of its present stretch. In the muted follow up to that interview he has approved in principle, Professor Elaigwu will be outlining the logic of ‘technological determinism’ in the transformation of Africa. However, listening to the presenters at The Electoral Institute’s Roundtable on the issues, challenges and consolidation of the Smart Card Readers on October 26th, 2016, I could imagine where Prof must be coming from. Different presenters used one form or the other of the expression depicting the impact of Smart Card Readers on the 2015 General Elections in Nigeria as revolutionary.
The case for the consolidation of something that both radicals and conservatives are ready to refer to as revolutionary would seem to be obvious. But why, for instance, did untrained people find themselves administering the process on the election day? Or, why were politicians scared, to the extent they could be said to have been designing to make the application of the Smart Card Readers fail? What were the problems specific to each of Nigeria’s geopolitical zones as far as it concerned the cards? Why did it become sacrosanct even when it was such a harmless innovation at the time it was decided?
Professor Abubakar Momoh, the Director-General The Electoral Institute who raised these and many more similar questions while welcoming participants offered his wager thus: Smart Card Readers, SCRs), is a political issue. Its use or non-use, full or partial engagement are political and about the choices made. But he conceded that such a facility as the SCRs is a moral and political right of the citizen, thereby linking the question or imperative for consolidation to the question of giving integrity to the electoral process. He was happy, he said, that the resource persons on ground to lead the discussion were certainly the best on the topic.
Engineer Nuru Yakubu, the first of the resource persons Momoh had in mind, had been a onetime Rector of Kaduna Polytechnic before serving as an INEC National Commissioner up to 2015. In a language that brought back memories of the late Chuba Okadigbo, the engineer spoke of Nigeria having crossed the Rubicon “in the gravitational progression towards electronic voting in 2015”. This, he said, had been a steady, slow but sure gravitation. In the countdown to the 1983 General Elections, the defunct National Party of Nigeria got on to the idea of electronic voting machines. Chief Awolowo’s Unity Party of Nigeria, (UPN) opposed it and very consistently too. In response, Dr Okadigbo described Chief Awolowo and the UPN as electro-phobic and that it contradicted Awolowo’s fascination for free education. Nuru Yakubu’s imagery of crossing the Rubicon in favour of electronic voting is the sort of language one would have been hearing from Okadigbo in the 2015 election if he were still alive. In his own case though, it would have been highly philosophically enhanced entertaining language directed at opponents. We miss him.
Of course, Yakubu offered quite a comprehensive list of empirically informed recommendations in relation to consolidation of the SCRs. They were, however, mostly of technical nature bordering on who, what, where, when and how it could become compromised and what that entails in correctional terms. His paper and Dr Steve Adeshina’s paper fall into the same category in that sense, dealing with SCRs not reading PVCs, no data at all or there is biodata mismatch or ‘farm hand’ disarranges data on the PVCs, poor quality of fingerprints, wrong packaging of PVCs or where PVCs were collected by proxies and/entered the wrong hands.
For both presenters, the use of PVCs in 2015 has transformed the technology into a part of what Yakubu, for instance, calls national minimum standard for conduct of elections in Nigeria. For Adeshina, an Associate Professor of Electrical and Electronics Engineering and Computer Sciences at Nile University of Nigeria, SCRs was the most critical success factor in 2015 but the most criticised. All loopholes must be blocked out. What he wants all those associated with doing so to note is that this is not about rocks and mountains but about human beings. By implication, he was drawing attention to innovation and flexibility.
Nuru Yakubu went along with that too in his own way when he said earlier on that only a “statistically relatively small number of voters” were affected in terms of those who did not have PVCs. It turned out though that these were the “high profile politicians”. He had more disclosures, only one of which we can take here. It has to do with why the December 2010/January 2011 biometric registration exercise which he described as the largest of such anywhere in the world” was not extended beyond the three days it was. His answer: those three days cost N7b. A background information for those shouting that the card readers should have been tested out severally before it was adopted in 2015. The 2011 registration exercise was when the PVC and the SCRs began to crystallize.
The two are overjoyed that INEC has, in Yakubu’s words, moved over the years from a pariah organisation after the 2007 General Election to being a better performing public institution, ahead of others such as EFCC, THE Nigerian Immigration Service (NIS) and the Nigerian Communication Commission (NCC), attributing this rating to a recent poll that African Leadership Magazine conducted and as reported in Daily Trust, (October 18, 2016).
With Professor O B C Nwolise from the Department of Political Science at Ibadan, everyone knew that a social scientist had taken over from an engineer and a computer expert. There was a change of language and approach. Issue of conceptual clarification came in. What does the card reader actually refer to and why does it matter? Yakubu had listed four reasons why the card matters. It is to verify INEC ownership of PVCs presented for the purposes of voting during elections; authenticate the fingerprint of the card holder against the recorded fingerprint image on the card; count and store the number of voters fingerprint-authenticated as well as those not authenticated and then transmit the data gathered from the SCR via SIM card or WiFi to a Central Server at INEC HQ. That was Yakubu, largely in his own words.
Nwolise was, therefore, right to describe the card reader as a gate-keeper which determined and disallowed those who were not supposed to vote. By implication, it is a facilitator of orderly voting. In itself, it is nothing more than a plastic card similar to an ATM card but with election related data that helps prevent such features as multiple voting, transferring one’s card to another and so on. In the end, it contributes to transparency and credibility of an election. Nwolise points out how it is a measure of electoral transparency globally today.
He notes how opposition mounted over the SCRs as the 2015 elections approached, forcing INEC to organise public demonstrations of the functioning of the SCR on March 7, 2015 in 12 states of the Federation. That is two states from each the 6 Geo-political Zones and Abuja. Similarly, the commission had to carry out a kind of integrity, quality assurance and functionality tests on the SCRs to be very sure of their utility.
His analysis of the basis of the opposition categorises the opponents into two – there were those who wanted it and there were those who simply didn’t want it. Among those who didn’t want it at all were those he said so that they would rig and those who are change-resistant. Specifically, opposition to SCRs was also informed by fear that it had not been tested on any serious scale, the fear that it could be manipulated by opponents or that there could be collusion between politicians/political parties and unscrupulous INEC staff to buy up uncollected PVCs, thereby successfully circumventing the PVCs and SCRs.
Interpreting the media focus on the failure of the SCR in some polling units and not its success in most polling units in terms of this opposition, Professor Nwolise is, however, clear that the new system (PVC and SCR) excited millions of Nigerians. Only the fraudulently minded and those who either abhorred or were slow to accepting change were opposing its use, he said.
Otherwise, the SCR is, in his view, “the material hero of the 2015 elections, the most outstanding tool, and the most celebrated by Nigerians and foreigners. He doesn’t see the discourse now as a matter of whether the SCR will be used or not but on how to improve or perfect the performance of the SCR, a process he forwarded a number of suggestions: encouraging the manufacturing company to establish a mini-factory in Nigeria as a way of eliminating or grossly minimising damages to SCRs due to long distance transportation from overseas; exploring the possibility of solar recharge device vis-à-vis provision of readily available source of power for recharging the all SCRs adequately before deployment; early procurement request for any new SCRs from makers; test running of all SCRs in factory before collection; careful packaging and transportation to avoid damages in transit; second test running of imported SCRs on arrival in Nigeria to ensure they are in good condition; proper and extensive trial-use of SCR and other accompanying new technological innovations for functionality assurance; adequate voters’ education on the safety keeping of their PVCs especially to protect their antennae, and save them from radiation.
Barrister Eze Onyekpere and Chynwe Nnam delved into and illuminated the debate over whether the introduction of the SCRs by INEC was not in violation of the prohibition of electronic voting. Relying on legal authorities to that effect, both said it was not. Electronic voting is a much more involving thing than an accreditation facility such as the card readers. This is so well put by Onyekpere: What the hitherto section 52 (2) of the Electoral Act, 2010 (as amended) prohibits, is the use of electronic voting machine but not the use of card reader for accreditation of voters and that is where it stops. Thus, for all intents and purposes, a card reader simply verifies and authenticates the identity of the voter”. But it was a useful background to the whole evolution of the SCRs. Onyekpere’s suggestion on consolidation is that the rapidity of technological revolution worldwide calls for a quick determination as to the use of card readers in the 2019 elections. Otherwise, he rates the SCRs as one of the greatest innovations of the 2015 general elections and for which INEC ought to be commended, whatever the shortcomings. Nnam offered many suggestions too but one is particularly interesting because it is an insider’s and it goes as follows: The Commission needs to regularly update, upgrade and re-examine the Smart Card Reader. This is to ensure that it is in good working condition and technologically compliant with the latest innovations in its field”
It bears repeating that what The Electoral Institute does today speaks to a more ancient tradition of seriousness, substance and rigour in the intellectual arms of the public service. The degeneration in recent decades has affected the pursuit of these qualities across the board. But without the intellectual arming of public policy, then the achievement symbolized by recent innovations in INEC could disappear without traces. Yet, Nigeria is supposed to be competing with countries in East Asia, for instance, many of them with excellent and sacrosanct traditions of rigorous examinations and grueling grooming systems.