Will biometrics work in the Nigerian election?

“These elections are pegged to be the closest in the nation’s history,” says Tim Beighton Director of Marketing & Communication at Zaki Communications and a UK expat living in Lagos.

“The ruling party are clearly at risk of losing their position this time around and this opens the possibility that there may be issues on the day of voting and the days post announcement. Whichever side wins, it is likely the other’s supporters will protest and it is likely that the protests and discussions will centre around the use of biometric technology and dependent on the voters’ point of view its positive or negative effects on the results.”

The forthcoming Nigerian election, which was postponed from 14th February to 28th March due the battle with Boko Haram, sees current leader, Goodluck Jonathan pitched against former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari. Yet whilst both provide strong invective against corruption, this is rife to the point of endemic.

As Mary Olushoga Founder of the AWP Network Agropreneur Project explained at an event recently many politicians are currently handing out “free rice” to secure votes. This foodstuff is imported and “not always the good stuff” she added. While a BBC article on ‘brown envelope’ journalism showed a media so corrupt that “that many young journalists with whom I [Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani] have spoken have no idea that it is unethical” to take bribes.

It is against this backdrop that a biometric system where every voter will receive a permanent biometric voter card to present at the polls and verify their identity is being trialled.

“It is a good step,” explains Williams Okebugwu the owner at Columella Nigeria Company “because this will help checkmate the possibilities of an Election been rigged or manipulated. The introduction of technology will increase the election credibility.”

“Often technology is let down by its environment,” though warns Beighton. “Everyone hopes for the best, but Nigeria is a challenging country to operate in and there is always concern that the process will be open to abuse.”

The human factor is difficult to predict but Nigeria has a solid history of identity registrations explains Babatunde Afolayan an IDC Analyst, based in Lagos. “These include SIM card registration, voters’ registration, national identity card registration and residence registration done in Lagos state. All of these registrations were completed using the biometrics platform as this remains the most effective method of identifying individuals.”

“To run a credible election, where rigging is mitigated, the use of biometrics will not only be the best option but also create a seamless process of election as errors will be limited and counting will be stress-free,” he continues.

The trouble, of course, could be logistical. The INEC (Independent National Electoral Commission), which is organising the biometric system has already run into some problems along the way. Although when I made contact nobody was prepared to comment.

Giulia Piccolino of the Institute of African Affairs at GIGA (the German Institute of Global and Area Studies wrote an excellent analysis for the Washington Post earlier this month on lessons we can learn from other African country’s biometrics implementation. When I got in touch with her for more of her opinion she was keen to stress “I am not an expert of Nigeria itself, so my opinion is very much based on what has been observed in other countries”.

However, she did add she feels it is “very risky” because the country is so “big” and “unevenly developed”. “For me,” she says “the most probable scenario is that in a substantial number of polling stations the machines will stop working at some point. Polling station officials will thus have to decide if voters can vote or not without their voter card being electronically verified.”

“Since the decision will be likely taken on a case-by-case, it will inevitable cause polemics and accusations of double standards and fraud. If in a very large number of polling stations the machines stop working, the INEC might decide to renounce voter card verification altogether.”

Dr Orji Nkwachukwu, her colleague at GIGA, who has extensive experience with elections and Nigeria was keen to add more detail. “There are at least four dimensions in which electronic card readers will be used in the forthcoming elections in Nigeria,” he clarifies.

Firstly, they will be used to verify the authenticity of the Permanent Voters Cards (PVCs). Secondly, they will be used to determine the “accreditation figures” essential for checking the credibility of the election results. Thirdly, they will be used to collect data such as age and gender, which has “proved difficult in the past”. And fourthly, they will be used to authenticate the voter through finger print verification.

“Based on the test-runs that have been conducted in the past few weeks, the fourth dimension proves to be the most problematic as the machines failed to verify the finger prints of several voters,” he continues. “The electoral commission has made alternative arrangements for voter verification, in case problems are not resolved before election day.”

“Overall, I think the other dimensions will be successful as they happened during the test-run. The card readers verified the authenticity of the PVCs and transmitted the required information to INEC data centre without problems,” he adds.

Afolayan agrees: “The new permanent voters’ card was developed from the biometrics registration done a few years earlier with new registrations conducted in 2015. A large amount of resources have been channeled towards the biometrics registration and the card production. Also, INEC had a test run of equipment and election process in 12 states of Nigeria about two weeks ago and all the states recorded over 95% accuracy.”

“Card readers are battery powered, so I don’t expect challenges with powering the machines,” says Nkwachukwu. This is something that other people have suggested might be an issue due to constant power outages. “Since the cards readers are no different from the ones used in shops and offices in Nigeria, I don’t expect officials to encounter much difficulties in using them,” he adds.

“The electoral commission said arrangements have been made in case of malfunction of some of the machines – [and] up to 360,000 card readers will be deployed. Back up card readers have been provided within specific locations. Malfunction may lead to delays but would not truncate the voting process,” he continues.

Afolayan is keen to second this point about “the [good] level of preparations”. He feels this due diligence coupled with the “resources channeled towards the forth coming general elections” mean that “Nigeria is bound to witness the most credible elections conducted in the country.”

Nigeria may have a number of issues at the moment but as Nkwachukwu outs it the biometric system will probably not be the problem. “Overall, I am satisfied with the plans the electoral commission has put in place,” he concludes. “I cannot discount that unforeseen circumstances would arise. This should be expected in an exercise like this.”


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