Opinion: Technology use, local content and 2015 Election: The Change INEC must lead

Opinion: Technology use, local content and 2015 Election: The Change INEC must lead

Opinion: Technology use, local content and 2015 Election: The Change INEC must lead

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In this article sent to Technology Times, Ayoola Akinniranye & Kelechi Uleanya, share their experience as technology platform provider for the 2015 Elections in Nigeria.


The democratization of politics in most post-colonial and transitional democracies like Nigeria has not been successful in terms of reducing the incidence of voter intimidation, ballot box snatching and stuffing, vote buying, multiple voting, underage voting, falsification of results and other associated electoral malfeasances. The historical trajectory of elections in Nigeria is, therefore, inseparable from monumental and barefaced electoral manipulations” – Chikodiri Nwangwu, 2015

Election in Nigeria is usually violent, leaving in its trail, death, sorrow, pain and tears. Nwangwu’s observations summarise the Nigerian electoral experience. It is not uncommon for ballot boxes to be snatched and for electoral officers to be beaten mercilessly or even killed. Mapping the matrix of violence and other acts of brigandage reveals a pattern that benefit from a combination of some or all of the following factors:

  1. A winner-takes-all political environment. Regardless of outward posturing, election winners in Nigeria hit jackpots while losers are figuratively sentenced to Siberia until the next election round.
  2. Favourable historical precedence that rewarded a culture of violence, manipulation and crookedness.
  3. Inefficient and easily compromised processes.
  4. Secrecy (many acts of electoral manipulation go undetected).
  5. Redress mechanisms that can be manipulated.

Electoral violence, voters’ intimidation and vote thefts are thus seen by political players as important parts of the processes, as critical means to an end and a measure of the political strength of a chieftain. This article focuses on our experience in the 2015 election as engineers that were involved in the provision of technology platforms. It contains recommendations on how we think the twin evil of violence and rigging could be permanently eliminated from our polity.

Integrity report of 2015 General Election in Nigeria
Integrity report of 2015 General Election in Nigeria

In the early morning of Monday March 23rd 2015, we received a call to be part of a Nigerian engineering squad across four continents that was to work as a three-day non-stop coding relay team towards delivering a national virtual infrastructure for real-time nationwide election monitoring. The system must be ready by Thursday (same week) to enable a measure of testing before D-day on Saturday March 282015. Our first reaction was that they must be kidding until it was revealed that the Team Leader would be Tunji Ariyomo. For those familiar with the pioneering ICT projects in the South West, Ariyomo, an engineer, had garnered a reputation in his native Ondo State for delivering on the use of technology no matter the odds. Immediately, initial feeling of uncertainty transmuted to the exciting prospect of being part of a group to deliver a project of national significance to the Federal Government within limited time by a team 100% made up of Nigerians.

Some of our team members in the North of Nigeria assembled in Abuja and spent the next three days with the team leader. Others were garrisoned in Akure, Ibadan and Lagos while those outside the country, especially in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom remained connected via Skype. The team leader had drafted the system’s schema and architecture and outlined the driving vision.[quote font_size=”22″ font_style=”italic” align=”right” bgcolor=”#” color=”#” bcolor=”#” arrow=”yes”]Vested interest and political interference caused the delay till last minute before our team was commissioned. Foreign firms originally contracted failed to deliver hence the need to recourse to local hands. A very cerebral professor had recommended our Team Leader’s name as one of a few that could pull off such a rescue stunt within limited time but the overall ‘big man’ put in charge by the President was said to have bluntly resisted claiming ‘he had a feeling’ Ariyomo was a Buhari person. One can only imagine the number of critical roles lost to mediocre hands simply because of untenable sentiments by persons in charge. [/quote]

We were required to develop an automated dual feed system that takes advantage of basic secured input properties of structured query language for relational reporting and the use of Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD), a GSM technology that enables the exchange of short message service (SMS) between a mobile phone and an application program on a provider’s network. Our primary objective was to empower a Key Informant per polling unit with the technology platform for instantaneous or real-time reporting of vote counts with the cheapest possible mobile phone.

A brainwave addition by the team leader later included a smartphone support module allowing time-stamped scanning of pre-coded, duly-completed, form EC8A in each booth with automated simultaneous geographic coordinate enrolment system wherever 4G or 3G coverage existed or concatenated 2G/3G services and the input read and processed at the backend by a quasi-intelligent optical character recognition (OCR) app. The polling units at the time totalled 119,973.

As is customary with any project by the team, we zeroed in on a name, an identity. We chose ‘integrity’ as a tribute to the overall motivation and the mighty significance the project could represent in the Nigerian electoral polity.

While interests sympathetic to the Federal Government were sponsoring this, there was no one in doubt as to the critical role such an infrastructure could play in mitigating traditional challenges against free and fair elections if made the national standard. Beyond business, for us young Nigerian engineers, we became as enamoured as the team leader as we saw an opportunity to make a statement about indigenous capability under an impossibly short period. And we did it.

By the night of Thursday 26th, the INTEGRITY project was up on the virtual private network set up for the project and on a secured IP address for walkthrough by authorised representatives of the client and for testing. By Friday, it was up as INTEGRITY.NG, the first nationwide public electoral exit poll dash board for ubiquitous real-time key informant reporting in Nigeria. Within the first 30 minutes of making it public on D-Day, we recorded nearly a million hits and within the first three hours we had to change our VPS provider and had the server’s memory size extensively expanded – an indication of the appetite of Nigerians for a real-time experience as they have seen done in many advanced countries.

 Challenges

Section 27 (1) and (2) of the Nigerian Electoral Act limits the power to announce all election results to the Presiding Officer at the Polling unit, the Ward Collation Officer at the Ward Collation Centre, the Local Government or Area Council Collation Officer at the Local Government Area Council Collation Centre and the State Collation Officer at the State Collation Centre among other provisions. This provision was crafted to ensure that the results of general elections are genuine and emanated only from authorised sources. In essence, the framer of the clause intended it to be an enabler of fairness and credibility and not as an opportunity to be exploited towards altering the wishes of the people as expressed through their ballots.

In order to remain within the law, we took a decision to only allow the client see the results as they trickled in via a dedicated reporting interface. That interface included smart infographics and an optional SMS alert of count milestones so they do not need to remain logged in unto the platform to have the records. As our personal contributions to the nation’s electoral process however, we took a decision to develop an exit poll reporting frontend on the selected public domain with a branding that indicated it was only an exit poll indicator, whereas, they were indeed feeds from key informants at each polling unit spread across the federation. The disclaimer was necessary in order to fetter any attempt to utilise Integrity’s outputs as a smoking gun legal instrument in the challenge of INEC approved results whereas we still desired a reliable exit poll as a way of providing a check on actual voting numbers. This was the part made open to the public on D-Day. We also bundled an embedded self-reporting tool for any interested members of the public who elected to provide eye witness account.

Vested interest and political interference caused the delay till last minute before our team was commissioned. Foreign firms originally contracted failed to deliver hence the need to recourse to local hands. A very cerebral professor had recommended our Team Leader’s name as one of a few that could pull off such a rescue stunt within limited time but the overall ‘big man’ put in charge by the President was said to have bluntly resisted claiming ‘he had a feeling’ Ariyomo was a Buhari person. One can only imagine the number of critical roles lost to mediocre hands simply because of untenable sentiments by persons in charge. However, due to the depth of technology required, and the limited time that foreclosed further foreign experiments, the gentleman that was eventually given the rescue role did a third party re-assignment to our Team Leader, Ariyomo, hence our eventual call-up. The team included but not limited to Kelechi Uleanya, Ayoola Akinniranye, Chumang Sango, Olumayowa Onaolapo, Nanfa Temlong, Tunde Adeniran, Gideon Sango, Emmanuel Oluwasina, and several others that provided back end services while David Akin Babalola was team manager and deputy lead.

President Muhammadu Buhari, seated, undergoing the biometric capture by officials of the National Identity Management Commission (NIMC) in Abuja
President Muhammadu Buhari, seated, undergoing the biometric capture by officials of the National Identity Management Commission (NIMC) in Abuja

[quote font_size=”22″ font_style=”italic” align=”left” bgcolor=”#” color=”#” bcolor=”#” arrow=”yes”]Nigeria started the journey in 2006 by ‘creating’ a new device called the direct data capturing (DDC) machine. At the time, even at the level of local information technology sophistication, it could be considered a deliberate bogus label to disguise a trio of basic fingerprint scanner integrated with a digital camera and a laptop that several states such as Lagos and Ondo had already extensively deployed in their biometric-enabled nominal roll process enhancement reforms.[/quote]

 Lesson

Between 2006 and 2011, Nigeria committed nearly N150bn to the procurement of election-related technologies. Some could however argue that such expenditure proved expensive and the technologies logistically cumbersome. The strategic framework in place contributed to capital flight due to limited local content participation, especially in 2006. By 2011, Nigerian Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) like Zinox had to fight for space before consideration even though they were later relied upon to save the day. Nigeria started the journey in 2006 by ‘creating’ a new device called the direct data capturing (DDC) machine. At the time, even at the level of local information technology sophistication, it could be considered a deliberate bogus label to disguise a trio of basic fingerprint scanner integrated with a digital camera and a laptop that several states such as Lagos and Ondo had already extensively deployed in their biometric-enabled nominal roll process enhancement reforms.

By 2015, the nation’s electoral body had made the impressive evolution into the card reader as a technology driven solution to improve the electoral experience and mitigate the inefficiency associated with Accreditation Voting, the latter being another ineffectual contraption that has only been used in the Dominican Republic. While the card reader marginally improved the electoral experience, the critical issues of process change and holistic system change to match scientifically tested best practice in use in countries with advanced democracies suffered and denied the Nigerian public the true benefits that such heavy financial investments in novel technologies should provide.

The card reader, despite its marginal success has been declared illegal by the Supreme Court. The Nigerian case presented an atypical conflict of law as the Electoral Acts (Section 153) empowers INEC to make rules, regulations and guidelines for the success of elections whereas Section 52(2) of the same law expressly forbids the use of electronic voting devices. In the opinion of the Supreme Court, the card reader, deployed as a workaround technology by INEC to sidestep constitutional limitation, was still an electronic device because it played a role in the voting process.

 Way forward

A recent research by ActionAid showed that 68% of Nigerian respondents in a survey were ready for electronic voting while as high as 60.1% suggested that full electronic voting should commence in the next general election in 2019. That is what science says. It is trite to insist that until the nation matches its public policy with what empirical evidences support, the investments in inefficient use of technology with its attendant uninspiring outcomes will persist. Technologies such as DDC machines, card readers etc are workarounds occasioned by legislative limitations and they only bring marginal improvements at great cost.

The leadership of INEC should therefore rally Nigerians and lead a charge that can help get the National Assembly remove the restriction upon technology use in the nation’s Electoral Act so that the full benefits of electronic voting could be realised. It is some absurdity, that the National Assembly, without the benefit of any research or empirical evidences that suggested a negative outcome, could go ahead and recklessly impose limitation on technology as it has done with Section 153 of the Electoral Act. It is unpatriotic. It is anti-science. It is anti-innovation. It is anti-growth. It is anti-democracy.

Senator Bukola Saraki, Senate President
Senator Bukola Saraki, Senate President

In 2016 Nigeria, most adults, including nearly every member of the national assembly, now have Bank Verification Numbers (BVN) associated with their bank accounts and cell phone numbers as obtained after their fingerprint enrolment. Also, in 2016 Nigeria, most adults do not have problem operating their bank accounts remotely from home while parents and young adults (18 – 25 years) have been known to electronically process WAEC/NECO/JAMB forms in the past one and half decades. Therefore, rather than a constitutional gag on technology use, the National Assembly ought to allow the masses step forward first as complainants.[quote font_size=”22″ font_style=”italic” align=”right” bgcolor=”#” color=”#” bcolor=”#” arrow=”yes”]In 2016 Nigeria, most adults, including nearly every member of the national assembly, now have Bank Verification Numbers (BVN) associated with their bank accounts and cell phone numbers as obtained after their fingerprint enrolment. Also, in 2016 Nigeria, most adults do not have problem operating their bank accounts remotely from home while parents and young adults (18 – 25 years) have been known to electronically process WAEC/NECO/JAMB forms in the past one and half decades. Therefore, rather than a constitutional gag on technology use, the National Assembly ought to allow the masses step forward first as complainants.[/quote]

Appropriate technology use policy framework can guarantee elimination of avoidable deaths, voters’ intimidation, collusion, results’ manipulation and other malfeasances associated with the Nigerian electoral experience. It will eliminate systemic failure manifesting in unnecessary needs for vote extension, delays, apathy and doubts occasioned by extant unwieldy processes while promoting quick administration of justice via incontrovertible evidence logs thereby ending years of lengthy litigations and wastage of funds.

Proper adoption of technology will ensure that Nigerians now have choices and can opt to exercise their civic rights physically at the polling booths or elect to vote remotely from homes thereby reducing pressure in polling units on election days whilst ultimately increasing voters’ participation or turnouts. Many people that are often disenfranchised as a result of safety concerns would be able to vote from the comfort of their homes while genuine citizens in the Diaspora with valid international passports, duly enrolled by the Nigerian Immigration Service, could then take advantage of the same opportunity owing to platform interoperability.

One has to admit and take due cognizance of potential weaknesses that could be exploited by unscrupulous elements in the adoption of technology. This is why it is proper to advocate that such a system must not be the type that a single organization maintains absolute control over. It must be a system that has real-time transactional monitoring capacity and checks embedded in its auditing system. Also, every participating political party, relevant agencies of government, internal security services, the media and interested electorates must be able to independently keep track of the self-auditing facilities and logs in order to make sure that it is beyond manipulation.

We have lived it. We have experienced it. We are testimonies to the ability of the Nigerian engineers and scientists to innovate and deliver under intense odds. The results obtained on Integrity and that of INEC showed only marginal difference, a percentage of error that could be ascribed to limited control over polling unit key informant as well as limited training time for their coordination and the fact that some never made any returns. We know that were an organization like INEC, that has statutory authority over electoral processes, driving Integrity, the prospect would be near limitless. From vote casting to tallying to release of results, Nigeria must provide the legal framework to ensure that the country is able to take due advantage of modern technologies. The framework must ensure that such technologies are utilized in manners that guarantee that the processes of an election are truly free, fair and beyond questions. This is even as local capabilities also come bundled with the added advantage of reduced costs.

 

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