Several weeks before Nigeria’s 93 million registered voters were to cast their ballots for the country’s next president, a mock voter accreditation practice using the Bimodal Voter Accreditation System (BVAS), a novel technology, was conducted at select polling places throughout the nation.
Nonetheless, the presidential elections would be the system’s first large-scale deployment, and it initially seemed as though BVAS would be just another remarkable technological improvement to Nigeria’s electoral infrastructure.
The Independent National Election Commission did not, as promised, disclose all of the results from Nigeria’s 176,000 polling places on the evening of February 25, the day of the presidential poll. Instead, just a limited picture of the final results was available on the website. In light of a flurry of legal arguments resulting from the use of BVAS at polling sites, INEC has since apologised for the technological difficulties it had on election day and has been forced to postpone the impending gubernatorial elections by a week.
The incident hasn’t simply damaged Nigeria’s democracy; it has also clouded plans to employ biometric authentication technologies to increase election security in the nation. Many cases filed by opposition parties against the current government, which they accuse of manipulating the election in February, centre on the system, which has been employed successfully in other municipal and regional elections.
The biometric election in Nigeria
The commission’s chairman, Professor Mahmoud Yakubu, was given the opportunity to address delegates in attendance at Chatham House, and he captivated the audience with an explanation of how well-prepared the organisation was for Nigeria’s impending presidential election.
“I think all of us were surprised that we enjoyed a speech on election management the way we all did,” recalls the associate fellow of Chatham House’s Africa Programme.
Nevertheless, actual information on the logistics and training required to integrate BVAS into Nigeria’s electoral system was scanty. Again, in the weeks leading up to the elections, it didn’t seem like there was much reason for concern.
Also, there has been a push for digital ID systems across the continent. Examples include Malawi, where the National Registration and Identification System has been credited with generating significant cost savings in the delivery of services, and Cameroon, where a programme to issue biometric cards for refugees has given them access to mobile phone plans, health care, and education.
Nigeria launched its own Personal Voter Card programme in 2014, embracing biometric verification. This is how BVAS came to the attention of Nigerians as a technology that, according to INEC, would speed up results publication and expedite verification.
Then came the presidential election in February. On election day, it rapidly became apparent that many poll workers had underestimated the time required to authenticate voters using BVAS, which caused delays that essentially disenfranchised voters who showed up late to cast their ballots.
Although Nigeria’s election officials have come under fire for not using BVAS to announce results from specific polling places in a timely manner, the system appears to have done a good job of validating voters’ identities.
Learning from mistakes
In addition to the fact that INEC had repeatedly reassured the public that there was little risk of the system being compromised, the inability to use BVAS to access that black box is astonishing given that Nigeria is, by many standards, a very tech-savvy country. The public’s faith in the use of technology to protect elections in the future would undoubtedly be impacted by INEC’s inability to accomplish something comparable for Nigeria’s elections.
Furthermore, from countries all throughout Africa, there have been roughly a dozen recent examples of best practises in the use of biometric technology in elections. Nigeria did not designate its election systems as key national infrastructure prior to its most recent presidential election, despite the fact that it could have learned some major lessons from its 2017 polls.
Yet, in order to guarantee elections across the continent, international organisations must also advocate for far more transparency in technology use. However, there is a continuing belief among Nigeria’s civic institutions that they can quickly implement significant technical advancements in a society plagued by systemic issues with corruption, internet access, and national electrical grid accessibility.
In the meantime, Nigerians are still left wondering whether or not they can trust their institutions. This is a recurrent dilemma in a country that has worked so hard to establish democracy since it gained its independence, but many believe that the introduction of technology that safeguards the voting process should have begun to provide a solution.
Given the hitches and experience with the BVAS on elections day, many Nigerians are sad that it did not achieve the expected target. They contend that they expected more than they got, and that so far, the new devise as used by INEC was a near disaster.
Many contend that it fell short of promises made by INEC and that for one, they had expected, given the explanations of the electoral body before the elections, that final results would be announced at most 24 hours after the close of voting.
Many Nigerians feel that since INEC had used the technology for the Osun governorship election, any kinks should have been ironed out in preparation for the general elections. Many however argue that though the 2023 presidential election seemed flawed, they hope INEC would learn from the experience and put up a better performance next time, so as to instill the confidence Nigerians need to have in the electoral umpire.
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