By KAYODE KOMOLAFE
As the Independent Electoral Commission (INEC) gears up for the Saturday off-cycle elections in Bayelsa, Imo and Kogi states the role of technology in the polls will be a focus of attention beyond the three states. This is because the observers and critics of the electoral body would be watching if it could improve on its performance. All eyes will again be on INEC’s chairman, Professor Mahmood Yakubu, as they say.
It is somewhat reassuring that INEC has assured that there would be no technical glitches in its operations in the three states. Not a few commentators have reckoned that the elections of governors in the states would be a litmus test on the performance of INEC, including the effective use of technology.
So INEC has again raised the bar for itself and the expectations would remain high in the process.
Instead of the demonisation of INEC the emergent issues from the commission’s assurance should be constructively critiqued.
The role of technology has become pivotal in Nigerian elections especially after election of President Muhammadu Buhari in 2015. To start with, the Buhari campaign strategy was considered a leap compared to the more conventional mode of electioneering. The campaigns were vigorous in the social media and his messages were spread more on handsets than on bill boards and posters. And remarkably, INEC employed biometric voting cards in the bid to bolster the integrity of the voting process. The Permanent Voters Card (PVC) was rated as a revolutionary thing to happen to the electoral process in many informed quarters. Little surprise, therefore, that 35 days to the end of his tenure Buhari looked backed at his success at the 2015 poll and
said “God, through technology and PVC, made me President.” The former President spoke in an exceptionally grateful tone as he played host (for the last time in Aso Rock) to well-wishers who paid him Sallah homage.
Given the Buhari story, would you blame any politician or pundit who sees the application of sophisticated technology as the panacea to all the problems of election?
Politicians and their strategists as well as some civil society organisations are making the electorate develop a deep faith the in the role of technology in electoral efficiency. The corollary to that trend should the increased efforts on the part of INEC to make clarifications on exactly what role technology is playing in the electoral process at any point in time. The specific role shouldn’t be understated and by no means should it be exaggerated. Hopes should not be raised unduly.
Due lessons should be learnt from the experiences of liberal democracies around the world. The limits of technology and the risks involved in its use should be made explicit in the discussions of problems of elections. This is a proposition that should not be glibly dismissed as the thinking of a 21st Century Luddite.
Caution is the Word.
In 2005, Germany experimented with electronic voting. Two voters contested the process at the German Constitutional Court. The court upheld the following argument: “All essential steps of an election are subject to the possibility of public scrutiny unless other constitutional interests justify an exception . . . The use of voting machines which electronically record the voters’ votes and electronically ascertain the election result only meets the constitutional requirements if the essential steps of the voting and of the ascertainment of the result can be examined reliably and without any specialist knowledge of the subject . . . The very wide-reaching effect of possible errors of the voting machines or of deliberate electoral fraud make special precautions necessary in order to safeguard the principle of the public nature of elections”
There is the ample evidence that the evolution of the German electoral process continues because 17 years after that court ruling. More than 23 million online voters participated in the social election to elect council members to supervise the running health and pension schemes. Apart from the digital voters the traditional postal voting was also permitted in the poll which took place on June 12 this year.
This trend made some analysts to arrive at the following conclusion: “We argue that precisely (the) contrast between the recently strongly increasing number of postal voters, the new technological possibilities available, and the great willingness of the German population to vote online, on the one hand, and the absence of any concrete plans regarding e-voting in political elections on the part of politicians on the other hand, make Germany an interesting case for our analysis.”
In the light of the foregoing, the clarification that INEC should be making continuously is in many respects. For instance, there is relatively a greater clarity about the essence of the Bimodal Voter Accreditation System (BVAS) than the INEC Result Viewing (IReV) portal. Really, INEC’s promise of IReV is that of taking the picture of the polling unit results and uploading them in the IReV portal in the bid to make the process more transparent. But INEC’s critics have accused the commission of not fulfilling its promise of “transmitting in real time” the results of the elections. Now, in the present context of INEC’s operations, “transmitting” and “uploading” of results seem to mean quite different things.
Meanwhile, the flagellation of INEC by those who insist that it failed to “transmit” results continues. It would be a surprise if INEC is not expected to “transmit real time” the results of the governorship elections Bayelsa, Imo and Kogi states.
However, the energy expended on making a fetish of transmission of results should be better devoted on the nitty-gritty of the election – what will actually take place at the polling unit.
The simple fact is that it is not yet electronic voting in Nigeria. Yet, given the way pundits make magisterial pronouncements on the work of INEC regarding the deployment of technology you would think that voting in Nigeria is completely electronic.
That would be a mistaken view of the process.
The fundamental thing is the act of the voter thumb-printing the ballot paper in the polling booth. This balloting that takes place after the BVAS must have captured the biometrics of the voter is the strongest proof of the election. BVAS only tells you who is the authentic voter.
Therefore, political parties and candidates ought to pay a greater attention to having loyal polling agents on ground at the polling unit to sign the result sheets rather hankering for “real-time transmission” of results in the social media. The integrity of the result sheets may prove to be more important than some other factors for a candidate in some circumstances. Operational efficiency of INEC in ensuring that voting materials arrive at the polling units as scheduled on the election date are very crucial aspects of the process. So also is ensuring that eligible voters secure their PVCs early enough.
Some aspects of the electoral process have been successfully aided by computer, but not all. It is important to disaggregate the voting process to know the limit of application of technology at this level of Nigeria’s development. Four important steps come to mind in this respect. First, the choice is made by the voter by composing the ballot. Secondly, the ballot is submitted into the box. Thirdly, the submitted ballots are recorded in the result sheets. And fourthly, the results are tabulated. At present in Nigeria, BVAS has been acknowledged to be helpful in record keeping particularly to authenticate the voter while the technology of IReV has been useful in recording and tabulation. But the first step, the composition of the ballot which is the real act of choice making by the voter, is not yet computer-aided. It involves neither the Internet nor scanning. That’s why voting in Nigeria cannot be said to be electronic in a fundamental sense.
Besides, a greater premium should be placed on cyber security as any digital system could be vulnerable. The mystification of technology is not helpful given the peculiarities of the Nigerian system. The techno-ethical anxiety that envelopes the development of the Artificial Intelligence should temper the faith in the efficacy of technology in solving all the problems of election.
Credible elections would ultimately be a product of a liberal democratic culture. The application of technology alone will not develop such a culture in which elections would be conducted credibly and results accepted in a festival of democracy.
In philosophical terms, it may not be out of place to imagine that technology cannot replace completely the human factor in the administration of elections.
Justice for Ajaero
The assault on the president of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), Comrade Joe Ajaero, in Owerri last week is unacceptable.
Whatever the dispute might be such a treatment of a fellow human being should not be permitted in any civilised setting.
The issue here is the dignity of the human person which is a fundamental human right guaranteed by the 1999 Constitution.
So no person with an iota of humanity in him or her would justify this barbaric act on any ground.
The NLC’s position is that Comrade Ajaero was in Owerri to lead a workers’ protest against the Imo state government over poor working conditions. In a counter-position, the Imo state government has accused Ajaero of partisan involvement in the politics of the state. The state government says it has fully paid workers their wages.
To be sure, a lot of questions could be raised with Ajaero’s mission to a Owerri. Organising a workers’ protest a few days to a crucial election in a state is not the wisest step to take by a labour leader in the circumstance. Ajaero is from Imo state. Worse still, the reported security problems in Imo state are well known. The Labour Party, a creature of NLC, is presenting a candidate to contest the election. For clarity, Ajaero’s support for the Labour Party is legitimate. He has not violated any law by supporting the candidate of a party formed by NLC. But that fact alone should make it clear to him that partisan motives would easily be read to any labour action at the eve of a governorship election in the state. This should put him naturally in an awkward position. So a greater tact should have been deployed.
If Ajaero has probably committed a tactical error by his ill-fated mission to Owerri, those who attacked him have certainly committed a crime. Ajaero’s error could be organisationally corrected by the NLC; but his criminal attackers should be arrested and prosecuted and there must be restitution.
The police failed to protect Ajaero against the aggressors. The police should not fail to bring the perpetrators of the assault on Ajaero to book.
The Imo state government should not rationalise, let alone, justify this brutal act. The state government should instead resolve whatever disputes it has with labour using the machinery of industrial relations.
The federal government should move quickly to engage the NLC and the Trade Union Congress (TUC) in discussions to avert their threatened nation-wide strike against next Tuesday to protest the assault on Ajaero. It is a good thing that labour has acknowledged that a highly responsive call from the National Security Adviser (NSA), Mallam Nuhu Ribadu, prevented the situation from getting worse in Owerri on that day.
On its part, labour should temper its understandable anger and reconsider its position on the strike and opt for other less disruptive ways of seeking redress on this unfortunate matter.