The election management technology deployed by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) for the 2023 General Elections will create a distrust of technology among Nigerians, Mr Chinenye Mba-Uzoukwu, says
Mr Mba-Uzoukwu as Managing Partner of GrandCentral, leads the technology strategy consulting and project management company focused on critical national information technology infrastructure across government, healthcare, education, oil & gas, and industry verticals including media/entertainment and financial services.
He has also been around long enough to understand the Nigerian tech ecosystem where he has occupied leadership positions as the Institute of SOftware Professionals of Nigeria (ISPON) Member of National Executive Council of Nigeria Computer Society, among others.
On Saturday, INEC conducted the Gubernatorial and National Elections that attracted mixed reactions across the country following the outcomes of the electoral umpire’s attempt at digital transformation of polls in Nigeria.
On Sunday, the day after the polls, Mr Mba-Uzoukwu spoke in an exclusive interview with Technology Times, and did not mince words in his review of INEC’s controversial Bimodal Voter Accreditation System (BVAS) and other technologies adopted by the electoral umpire.
Technology Times has condensed the interview below for clarity and brevity:
- Mba-Uzoukwu on INEC and the adoption of technology to conduct elections in Nigeria
- Mba-Uzoukwu on understanding the technology inside BVAS
- Beyond BVAS: A simple open source technology would have done the job
- Of INEC alchemists and real-time upload of election results from polling units
- ‘They blamed the servers’: INEC sowed seeds of technology distrust with Nigerians
- INEC should apologise to the tech industry and Nigerians
- Electronic voting: The way to go next
- INEC should be barred from buying foreign software
- Something is fundamentally wrong when INEC doesn’t trust its system to open to public scrutiny
Mba-Uzoukwu on INEC’s journey of technology adoption for elections in Nigeria
I think the first point I was making was that INEC and its predecessors have always used technology of one sort or the other, but it’s been largely analogue. What we are talking about today is like a digital transformation of the process of election management, right? And so you find that every election something new is brought to the table and it is supposed to kind of like improve the process of elections. But there’s also some technology, usually at the back end. What is concerning us is what we’re seeing now at the front end.
If you remember back, we did, back to the election that we generally benchmarked was the election that produced MKO Abiola as the winner. And that election, they adopted something called Option A4, where we had the ballot, but we also had to stand in line and be physically counted. So we are trying to remove at that end, to kind of improve on the transparency and efficiency of the results. By the end of the day, those results are still collated, and they are manually collated, and then they are transmitted by somebody to collation centres, and up the line until eventually you get the national result. And that is supposed to be sitting in some kind of, I mean, if you think about it, you can see millions of people across Nigeria, hundreds of thousands of INEC workers or whatever it was, with pencils and erasers and big sheets of paper that had names of people and stuff like that. We’ve come from that stage to where we adopted spreadsheets.
My second point is that technology has always existed. At the end of the day, you want to tally a vote at a polling unit. We have calculators about 100 years old, buttons, a machine, and a computer that you press and add numbers. We have spreadsheets, which is about 60 or 70 years old in terms of technology, where you just enter in numbers in the spreadsheet, and it also calculates the numbers and makes it accurate, and almost in some cases impossible for you to edit.
So think about this. If we had put a simple spreadsheet on the BVAS, and we had entered in the numbers in the BVAS, would we be calculating whether or not and using Tipex to determine whether a total number of created voters, a total number of votes cast, a total number of ballot papers issued, a total number of votes per individual? A simple spreadsheet is what we’re talking about.
Where is all this mysticism that has been almost intentionally put around the technology of election management? Where is the difficulty around this election management, the essence of the fundamental election management, that requires us to spend hundreds of millions of dollars every single year, that we have general elections, and we still end up with shambles? So you need to wonder whether or not this is something that is, that we cannot solve, or is something that we don’t want to solve.
And this is where I came to the point that everything that is required for election management, right, credible elections in this country, is 100% available through local technology and local technology resources. 100% available. Even the devices that they’re talking about, can be, we have organisations that assemble computers. We have organisations that assemble phones in Nigeria. What is so difficult about this device that it needs to come from somewhere else? And we cannot, every year, we cannot plan over four years to provide 200,000 units of a BVAS. It has to be procured at the last minutes, months to the election. And on top of that BVAS, what is it that is operating? I’m trying to say that the software that we’re talking about is a simple spreadsheet and a set of forms.
And that’s why I came to the fourth element, which is why is this complexity kind of placed on top of what is extremely simple. What happens when you go to the voting, as we have seen this last time? Let’s start with the first one, which was a fabled smart card reader that failed and didn’t fail, the thumbprint reader that failed and didn’t fail. And this was years ago. Yet all over this country, we all use POSes. We all use POSes to make payments. We do transfers. You know, there are pictures of conductors sitting and hanging out of buses and waving POSes in the air that would accept payments from cards. What is this magic about this election that makes it so difficult for us to be able to overcome the challenges around election technology? My argument is that there is no challenge.
The challenge is human. It’s simply about the understanding of the technology, the willingness to open up that technology for people, open up for people to participate in the process of building the right kind of technology that works within our local system using the fundamentals that already exist. And I can argue this in a number of places, and I’ll just explain it to you as I see it today, based on what we saw.
Demystifying the technology inside BVAS
The BVAS is an Android device with a touchscreen and a camera. It has memory that is ROM and RAM, and it has a chip inside it. And that chip inside it enables it to communicate with servers and to transmit data. So what does it do? It comes through a polling unit as a designated device for a polling unit. And please note, every single device in this world, right, particularly when you think about it from an IoT perspective, there is no digital device that is connected to any network that doesn’t have an address, a unique address, a unique identifier. So every BVAS is unique to a PU (Polling Unit). When it comes to the polling unit, it comes with a list of, a subset of the list of voters who are on the voter’s register. And it comes with the digital information that they have given to INEC earlier in the process of registration of the voter.
That card that we were fighting for, PVC, is just a means of secondary identification because the truth is that if they have correctly captured your information and it is on the BVAS, right, that card that you have on the PVC is literally unimportant because they can point BVAS at you and it will do facial recognition. You can put your thumb or your fingers on the device and it will recognise and accredit you.
So the first instance, we fought over distribution of PVCs and it was just almost like a distraction because that wasn’t really where the issue was. The issue was would the devices work when we go into the field.
So I saw that as secondary. When you come to the polling booth, it comes with a PU, comes to the PU with the subset of voters. You step up as a voter, right, with your polling unit number. Your PVC has a polling unit number so it helps you to tell which polling unit you are supposed to go to. When you step up to the person behind the coffee shop, what does he do? They look at your PVC and they confirm, okay, the right number is there.
But like I said, you can actually just ignore that step. All you need to do is to point to the person, to point the camera of the BVAS at the person’s face. It will do the facial recognition and the facial recognition will determine if the person is registered on that PU, in that PU and the person’s record will be sitting on that BVAS. It authenticates and accredits you to vote. You then proceed to collect your ballot papers and you go to vote. What then is left on the PU is total number of registered voters to the polling unit, total number who have been accredited based on the bimodal approach to recognising and accrediting you. That’s what it has at that point in time, okay? And that’s what is stored inside the database on the machine itself. Then you go and you vote. When you vote and you cast your ballot, it is manually counted. The accent is manually-counted. It is then written into that form EC8. The idea is that you use the BVAS and take a picture of that form EC8.
Did we really need BVAS? Simple open source tech would have done the job
An open source spreadsheet would have done this job. A simple form, like a Google form, collects data and would have generated a PDF on that device that would then have been sent. Once the INEC officer had entered in the details into the form, all the party agents would have been able to approve, approve, approve, just by pressing a button or by putting their fingers on the device. They would have approved, approved, approved, then the INEC agent would have submitted and then you would have a locked uneditable PDF in addition to a photograph of the manually-entered documents. We wouldn’t be talking about anything concerning votes.
I can only speculate because to get the right answer you have to ask the alchemists that INEC has, the people who are producing this magic system that doesn’t work for INEC but works for every other thing. Because, you know, I don’t understand how anybody can say that there was a problem. As I explained, that machine, right, is an Android device. Any standard Android device would last a minimum of eight hours. Most of them do 10, 12 hours. Those things, when you look at them, they have low-res screens, so they are not high-capacity screens designed to show videos and play games. So they have low power consumption.
If INEC were honest with Nigerians, they would tell us the exact specifications for that BVAS and they would tell us what it was that we needed to know about, how long does it last, what’s the size of the memory and all that sort of stuff. But even a casual search online will reveal to you a device that costs about $30 that will last for 12 hours. So I don’t think we heard any reports of BVASes that ran out of power. They come in a casing that also has an extra battery pack. So there was no case of power failure. There was no case of what they talked about that, oh, they couldn’t upload. What we heard and what we saw, and I saw personally, wasn’t that the communication was not there because even Nigerians who came to a polling unit offered their own devices and their own Wi-Fi, Mi-Fi for that device to connect to the network.
So if I’m standing there, if there are 500 of us standing in a polling unit and everybody there is able to connect to the internet through their various providers, why would the BVAS not connect? It just has a GSM chip like anything else. And I know that INEC had a dedicated network that was put together working with a number of the ISPs, a number of the telecommunications companies. So what would have been the rate of failure? There is no way that the failure rates to connect and transmit would hit the levels that we would have had to have hit first or had a debacle that we saw. Over 90% of those devices in most cases did not connect in real time. How does that happen? Are they saying that there was a massive network failure across the entire country at exactly the right time? Well, the answer is no.
They can’t say that because they achieved near-real-time uploads for the Senatorial and for the House of Representatives. What was so unique around the Presidential results that the network decided to fail or reject the EC8 for the Presidential elections? It just doesn’t make any sense. It’s completely illogical. The same device that uploaded for the two other elections failed on the third. And then you blame it on the network. How is that possible?
So you see that it just doesn’t make the slightest bit of sense. For it to upload, you have to log in. How come they were able to log in successfully with passwords to upload House of Representatives and Senate? And then suddenly the one for the Presidential election failed. Suddenly they couldn’t connect. Suddenly the network failed. I mean, it beats imagination. And there’s no need for us to even go into that space.
I just think that we need to know that human beings failed. And they failed not just from the perspective of the process, but they also failed from the perspective of their conscience. People did things or allowed things to happen that have nothing to do with the technology. As you say in tech, garbage in, garbage out. If you don’t want to press the button, that’s what the machine is going to do. So that’s it. There’s no question in my mind that this had nothing to do with the technology failure.
I just wanted to re-emphasize. Remember that there’s an offline mode. So if everything was done correctly and the EC8 form was captured, and please, I want to always make that distinction, there was no transmission of results. There was a transmission of a facsimile of a result. We sent an image of a result sheet. We didn’t send the results. If we were sending results, we would have been sending the data, not a picture. We would have been sending the actual vote counts and not a picture of the vote counts.
Now, the BVAS would have stored that online on the device, locked, and the minute it went into an environment where there was connectivity, it would connect to the network and upload. It’s impossible to believe that across the entire nation, such huge volumes of BVASes were not able to get to a place where they could connect to the system, connect to the network, within 24 hours. And we can see clearly that seven days after the election, INEC is still uploading results. As of three days ago, they were at 96% of results. What does that have to do with the BVAS and the network?
INEC sowed seeds of technology distrust in Nigerians
I think the first thing, coming from the perspective of somebody who’s lived in this space for decades, I feel personally insulted by what INEC has done. I don’t know how else to put it. As a citizen, I feel personally violated by what INEC has done. As an industry professional, I feel completely alienated by INEC.
And I think INEC has created a larger problem for our industry than anything else by reinforcing the belief that this perception that technology does not work. They blame the servers. From the beginning, they blamed smart card readers. They blamed the servers. They blamed the servers. They blamed servers which got lost last time. How servers can get lost is unimaginable. This year, what they’ve done is that they blamed the servers again. They said it was hacked. They’ve talked about failure. They talked about the BVAS and connection and all that sort of stuff. They blamed the technology.
So literally what they’ve done is that they’ve sown the seeds of distrust with the public in a manner that will make our progress into the digital economy and the digital transformation that’s required to create that digital economy; they have cast fundamental doubts on it. And you can see it everywhere. When the country was trying to grow cashless, the fear of the individual was what happens when I try to pay? Will my money get lost? We have seen it now in the situation of the currency swap.
When you look at what INEC has done, they have created a fundamental distrust between the citizens and the technology industry as being capable and competent in protecting their sovereignty as the ultimate office of the citizen. This is not a small thing because it means that we are going to have to go through, I don’t know how many iterations, to get Nigerians to believe again. They believed, and they came out. They believed, and they went after their PVCs. They believed, and they came out to come and vote. And then, this has happened. So of course the next election that will come around, the first thing that will happen are doubts around the technology. When we know clearly that there is no doubt, that the technology had no fault. The technology may have been, in terms of particularly the software, INEC didn’t do what it needed to do in terms of building out the full capabilities of the software in a manner that it could have done, and in a manner in which Nigerian technologists have actually proven it could be done within seven days. But that first step of believing technology, they’ve created big problems.
INEC should apologise to the tech industry, and Nigerians
So I feel that they should apologise to the software industry, the technology industry. I feel very strongly that they should apologise to Nigerians. And I feel very strongly that they need to come clean to tell us exactly what it is that went wrong and stop hiding behind these stories that can be so easily debunked.
Anybody who sits and looks at this system end-to-end will tell you precisely what I have told you. That the technology did not fail; because humans have failed. Therefore, if we want to produce an election that is flawless or as close to flawless as possible, we should remove as much as possible the human element.
What happened was, an election system was presented to INEC, demoed and even trialled. On that election system, you had a board where people could come and punch numbers, press buttons to vote after having been accredited. That system was set aside and the Electoral Act, when it was changed, didn’t allow for electronic voting. It allowed for electronic transmission of results.
Electronic voting: The way to go next
Clearly the way to go is electronic voting. If we can do trillions of Naira every day, transacting trillions of Naira every single day through electronic systems, surely one vote, which is just a single transaction, can be done. There must be a way in the next four years that we can remove as much as is possible that human interface between my choice as expressed at the ballot box and what the outcome is as tallied by the system. I don’t want anybody standing between my votes and what is recorded as my votes. I think this is really what the goal should be to ensure that we remove that human interface because it is all about the human beings, everything that we see today.
You see, it has a knock-on effect. A tout goes out to grab a ballot box because he feels that the count of the ballot box is the vote. If that vote had been done electronically, where is the tout going to come to? Your house? How many houses will they go to? Why would we want to deploy people into all sorts of areas where we cannot secure them? Why do we want to expose Youth Corpers and other people to the system that cannot provide protection? We’ve seen instances and cases all over the country of where the police were not present to secure the lives of citizens who just wanted to express themselves. Surely the answer is to go 100% into electronic voting. The transition to that, I think, has already been shown. And that’s the next thing.
INEC should be barred from buying foreign software
INEC should be barred from procuring any foreign software. It’s as simple as that. Because the BVAS has shown that it is not necessary. It is just a form, a camera that takes a picture and does accreditation, a small database that is sitting on that device, a simple form that you enter numbers into, and a small chip that’s inside it that transmits the data. Please, how much more fundamental can technology be that requires this huge outlay of money and yet continues to fail? We can, as I mentioned earlier, tally the votes at the polling units, secure the outcome of that tally by taking a picture, and by auto-generating a locked PDF on that device, both of which can be transmitted whenever that device gets into the place where it can get a connection. When we do that, we’ve taken away the basis for manipulation, and we’ve enhanced the integrity of the election process. Surely INEC must be interested in doing that. Surely Nigerians can be spared the shame of what it is that we’ve come through in the past two weeks. This is ridiculously simple, but so simple that I will tell you that most technology people are angry. Angry and ashamed.
But I’m grateful that they rose to the occasion. For everything that INEC claimed was not right, rather than whine, being Nigerians, they set about coming up with the solutions. We saw the solutions. We all saw the solutions. Some were applications, some were web-based, but they were all viable solutions.
So today we have records not just of voting, but we also have videos and pictures of what happened in the field that would no longer leave anyone in doubt as to did this happen in the P.U. or didn’t it happen in the P.U.? Were there ballots snatching? The picture is there, the video is there. So you have evidence-based reporting across the field, citizens reporting across the entire country coming in in near real-time to systems that were built by citizens in response to the failure of the institution that was given all this money to produce this fail-proof system.
I think that we are well on our way because now you’ve got, even though you’ve got a disappointed and largely disillusioned electorate, we are closer than ever before to having technology take away this irritation of the stories around our election management. We are really, really close, and I think we just need to pursue it.
But we will not get to the end if we do not open up INEC. INEC must be accountable to the citizens of Nigeria. If it considers itself to be independent from the government, it is not independent from the office of the citizen. We believe that INEC must be accountable to us, and so it is incumbent on INEC to prove to us that the systems that are put in place are being procured at the best cost, best use of taxpayers’ money, and that the solutions will deliver the results that we want. And this is something that must be independently evaluated by civil society on behalf of the citizens of Nigeria, openly done.
There is no issue of national security involved in this. We should not allow that to become like something that is like a cloak under which all sorts of things are done. Really, an election can make or break a nation. And I’m just completely appalled that we would allow this to happen and choose to blame it on technology, where technology did nothing, except exactly what it was initially designed to do.
I think the systems performed as they were designed to. Were they properly designed is a different question. Were they properly deployed? That’s a different question. Were they actually managed and maintained? That’s a different question. And I’m hoping that the law courts will bring all those things out. We would like to see the design architecture for the entire election management system. That should be made public. We would like to see the specifications of the infrastructure that was put in place. That should be made public. There is no national security issue around that. We would like to understand the protocols and the procedures that were in place for managing and maintaining the system.
I would like to know when it is that INEC will begin to respect the local software industry and the local technology industry enough to involve us in issues that are of direct concern to us and which we have proven we can do and build.
As I said, in seven days, they produced what should have been an update. When INEC says they are configuring the device, they should have learned from the past experience and they should have reconfigured and updated. When you use; we all use phones and devices, don’t we? All of those phones and devices are regularly updated, maintained and reconfigured remotely. You just wake up in the morning and you see that your phone has a new software update downloaded, please install.
If we are able to manage billions of devices across the world remotely, what is the big deal about these 200,000 Android devices? I just don’t understand it. As I said, it probably has come across in the way I am talking. I am upset. I feel professionally embarrassed by what has happened. As a citizen, I feel violated. It was completely unnecessary. I would like to hear the counterarguments. I hope that you would also be able to uncover what these counter arguments are so we can openly debate what happened over the course of these elections and let the blame fall where it needs to fall.
Something is fundamentally wrong when INEC doesn’t trust its system for public scrutiny
I think constitutionally there must be some commitment to this openness and transparency in this process. Right now there are too many people operating boxes and shadows, and shadows against shadows that allow things to be done that are not acceptable. I do understand that some of these systems may at some point have for instance, a security network that can be broken into. They will not give you all the details. But we should at least understand the configurations of all that. I feel that INEC should not be allowed discretion of choosing what it discloses to the public or what it doesn’t disclose to the public. You can even see that even based on the requests that have been made by the various political parties that feel that something may have been done wrong.
I think INEC is not allowing people free access and open access to systems. That means that fundamentally there is something wrong with their systems. They don’t trust it enough to open it up for people to look at. It means that it was improperly built in the first instance. So I just feel that there must be some way to break this, to not allow the interpretation of independence to mean that they work in an opaque manner where nobody has access to what they do. We cannot see it. It is our system. We paid for it. We continue to pay for it.
And lastly, there must be some way in which we start to recover the costs for all this massive and almost irresponsible expenditure. Every four years, we procure devices. Have you ever seen a recycled machine coming from the INEC process of civic registration that has gone into a school? If we deploy 200,000 to 400,000 systems every four years, have you ever seen any public system that has acquired those systems, whether refurbished or recycled or whatever, and has been repurposed and put back into the system? Why is it all waste? Shouldn’t there be some concern about having in place systems that actually work for the benefits of Nigerians and don’t have end-of-life after every election? Are we going to see a new procurement contract at the next election cycle? This should be a big, big concern to us.
So I feel these are the things that need to be broken out, made public, allow people to see, remove this opacity, and allow us to participate in the process. And very importantly, there must no longer be any expenditure around – I mean, think about it this way, you should know. If you knew, as a manufacturer of computer devices in Nigeria, that you had a contract for 400,000 devices and you had four years to build it and to build it to specification, are we saying that that doesn’t build capacity within our system? It is better for us to import units from wherever, and we do this every single year.