By Sunday Ani
The Akwa-Ibom State Resident Electoral Commissioner (REC), Mike Igini has assured Nigerians that the electoral umpire has finally developed a new strategy that would make election rigging extremely difficult and guarantee fraud-free, electoral process.
In this interview with, Igini spoke on the new technology which has already been tested in the recent bye-election in Delta State, the shenanigans by politicians in Anamba State ahead of the November 6 gubernatorial elections, and the amended Electoral Act among other issues bordering on the 2023 general elections in Nigeria.
The Delta State Governor, Dr. Ifeanyi Okowa, and his Bayelsa State counterpart, Duoye Diri, as well as other election observers like Yiaga Africa, have all applauded the Bimodal Voter Accreditation System (BVAS) that was used in the last Saturday’s bye-election for lsoko South 1 Constituency in Delta State. Can we say that the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) has finally found the magic wand that would guarantee credible and fraud free elections?
The determination of the commission to give meaning and purpose to the ballot as the best means of the expression of the will of the people in a democracy is a continuous work in progress. The BVAS is an improvement over the Smart Card Reader (SCR) Voter Accreditation Technology, which was first used in 2015, 2019 general elections and subsequent elections. You may recall that the SCR Voter Accreditation Technology authenticates a voter identity by associating the live fingerprint of the voter with the fingerprint template stored on the chip embedded in the voter’s Permanent Voter Card (PVC). However, due to few occurrences of false rejection, a situation whereby the fingerprint of a voter is incorrectly rejected despite having a PVC and name on the register during voter accreditation, the Commission introduced a policy of the use of ‘incident form’ to allow voters whose fingerprints are incorrectly rejected to cast their votes. This contingency was thoroughly abused and became a method for rigging elections by politicians in collaboration with some unscrupulous INEC staff and undermined a policy, though temporary, put in place not to deprive voters of the right to vote. Consequent on the field experience, the Commission doubled its efforts to address the situation, having also noted that the SCR Voter Accreditation Technology for voters’ fingers authentication was not as efficient as envisaged, due to other issues that affected the rate of successful fingerprints authentication. In sum, the introduction of the BVAS is a strong statement of the unwavering determination of the leadership of Professor Mahmood Yakubu to deepen democracy through the use of technology in our elections. The BVAS is the new electoral accreditation sheriff, which involves the use of two models for efficient human recognition. It is a biometric verification mechanism that uses both the fingerprints and facial images for efficient voter accreditation.
In order to ascertain the system readiness of the device for full-scale deployment, the commission deployed the BVAS for the Isoko South I State Assembly bye election held on Saturday, September 11, 2021, so as to verify its performance under a real time operating condition, following global standards for pilot testing. The huge success achieved using the BVAS aids in preventing cases of failed authentication, multiple voting and incidents of stolen PVC. These utilities of the device are what stakeholders like the governors you referenced and other stakeholders applauded resoundingly. Where, for instance, the fingerprint authentication fails, facial authentication was done and vice versa. The commission truly has finally found the magic wand for credible and fraud-free accreditation process in elections.
What are the major differences between the BVAS and Smart Card Reader?
From what l have said so far, you can see that the BVAS is a fundamental improvement on the card reader in a number of features. Firstly, the SCR Voter Accreditation Technology is a biometric verification mechanism that uses only the fingerprints for voter accreditation on Election Day, whereas the BVAS is a biometric verification mechanism that uses both the fingerprints and facial images for efficient voter accreditation on Election Day. Secondly, with the SCR Voter Accreditation Technology, the voter’s data such as the bio-data, photo, and fingerprints are stored on the chip embedded on the PVC and the SCR is used to read the data from the chip on the PVC before biometric authentication is done, but with BVAS, voter’s data are stored on the bimodal accreditation device and voter’s data is called up from within the device before biometric authentication. Thirdly and finally, the SCR device has limited capability, limited memory capacity and can only run on 2G network. But the BVAS device has good memory capacity and can run on 3G and 4G networks. So, you can see that we are making progress in INEC and that is why I call for the understanding, support and cooperation of all stakeholders in order to have credible elections for the consolidation and sustenance of our democracy.
Are we seeing an end to the use of Card Reader in subsequent elections?
For now, the bimodal verification is the method of choice, and from field reports, it has been significantly effective. With the adoption of technological advances without needless fears, the future of elections in our country is bright. What is of utmost importance is to maximize the enfranchisement of citizens while ensuring electoral integrity which is the object of the BVAS accreditation verification process. As I have maintained on other occasions, these painstaking procedures have only been necessitated by the weak personal identification ecosystem in Nigeria. It is unfortunate that we are a country where an individual has to undergo multiple identification systems; a national Identity card, a national passport, a driver’s license, a bank verification number and a voters card, all containing the same biometric, yet we will still require advanced technology to verify their identity; it shows severe defects in our citizens identification system.
The INEC Chairman, Prof Yakubu was quoted to have said voters won’t be allowed to vote without electronic verification; will the Commission be able to stand by this?
First, we must acknowledge the value commitment that informed the Chairman’s statement as the head of a body that regulates the conduct of elections in Nigeria. This commitment speaks to and reinforces the issue of ensuring electoral integrity without diminishing the participation of citizens in the electoral process. These issues are foundational in the mandate of the commission. If the goal of democracy is to maximise the freedom and autonomy of everyone in a community; in that context, the real ability to fully participate in political decision-making is of critical significance, but in participating, we need to ensure that participants are the expected registered voters because we have an electoral history that is replete with deliberate distortions of voters’ participation. If participation is compromised or distorted, it means that the process of authorization measured by the voting outcome is unreflective of the common will, which means that it has been determined by extraneous factors other than the registered voters. So, SCR and BVAS are all necessary tools to minimize and mitigate compromise or distortions of accreditation and consequently voter participation process. Our concern has always been about some politicians, who are unwilling to subject themselves to the will of voters. You can see the extent of that problem in the difficulties being encountered in trying to regulate even their political party primaries.
What is the fate of the incident card in future elections?
The use of incident forms stopped after the 2015 election when the commission devised a method of indicating such cases on the register of voters without issuing a separate form in the 2019 election. Given the bimodal process now in place which uses a binary method, nobody should be talking about something that had been stopped after the 2015 election.
Electronic transmission of results was a controversial aspect of the amended electoral bill. What is the position of the Commission on that?
The point on electronic transmission is an unnecessary controversy and this is why. The law requires that all election results at polling units after they are declared and signed by the political party agents, should be recorded in Form EC8A and published at the Polling Unit in Form EC60. This is the law. At that point, if the result has been published on both legal documents, any observer, polling agent, INEC official or any citizen for that matter can copy, take a picture or record on video, publish Form EC60 and they may send to their own principals but cannot publish it as the declared result as only the INEC can do so by law; after collation. What INEC has done at every election since pilot testing commenced in 2011 is to record that data. What has only improved is how that data that is captured in the EC8A and EC60 forms are stored as cloud data. Where the digital resources and facilities are sufficiently available that cloud data is obtainable to central coordinating operations locations, they are obtained immediately from the cloud data. Where they are limited, it is transmitted incrementally as the required resources are augmented. So, what may change is only the speed of obtaining and collation of the data already stored in the cloud at the polling units. Therefore, I am at quandary to explain why any participant in an election, be they voters or candidates in the election, will not want technology to aid the speed of obtaining the polling units’ results secured as cloud data and resolving the election outcome. The data is already known at the polling unit. It has been published there. Several independent people have the data, so why is there a controversy about how quickly it is obtained for collation without relying on manually carrying it over diverse and unpredictable terrains which will be done for the hard copies?
How do you feel about the conduct of some of the political parties, considering what’s going on in Anambra State where court orders have been flying around?
I am very worried by the behaviour of the political parties. But even so, I am also worried by the larger society that is unwilling to strengthen the rules governing the regulation of the behaviours of political parties, not just in Nigeria but globally because it should go beyond state actors to the global democratic community. To take a holistic view of the problem we need to go to the root of the issue.
And the truth about it is that the problem lies with the fact that political practitioners are the only people who write and approve the laws guiding their behavior. Electoral laws and political party guidelines for selecting party officials and party candidates are written and modified by the parties themselves, yet, their impact when they go sideways affects society more severely than the behaviours of other practitioners that are even more heavily regulated. Lawyers (Bar Association), doctors (The NMA), and investors (The Stock Exchange), all have guiding laws which are regulated by third parties when they refuse to behave, but who or what regulates the rules for elections and party nominations when politicians refuse to behave? What happens when they refuse to adopt a sensible Electoral Act? What happens when they dilute the Constitution so that they can make their party constitutions unenforceable? These are conundrums that the global democratic community must answer. We cannot just assume that we simply classify it as tyranny or defective democracy and allow the destinies of nations to fall on a sword. A new paradigm for control or regulation of the practitioners of statecraft should be developed. Political philosophers stopped at party pluralism, division of power between arms of government, vertical accountability through elections, but still, we see it is not enough. What must be done to make political practitioners pliant to regulation? If we can find a collective answer to that, we will have little less to worry about and we can minimize the type of behaviour we see in the build up to the forthcoming Anambra election. You all can see that, where they won’t succumb to party rules; they go further to mock the law by forum shopping for courts and judges from one geopolitical zone to another. I am happy that the Chief Justice of Nigeria is taking firm steps to ensure that the judiciary does not lend itself to mockery by the recent actions of a few judges who are making it easier for such politicians not to be regulated by law.
What would be your advice to the Nigerian populace concerning the forthcoming 2023 elections?
To advise the Nigerian populace concerning coming elections, I will turn to Burbank who posited that the political views and actions of individuals are not solely a product of individual characteristics, but also, reflect the attributes of other people in a shared social setting. Put another way, he says the cultural, political norms and social constructs that an individual emulates are directly associated with their civic and social organizations, as well as their political affiliations. The import of that profound thought for our society as a collective of people is that we can impact the type of society we want by how receptive or resistant we are to desirable or undesirable political behaviour. If Nigerians agree collectively that political culture as we have seen it since independence is not what we desire for our country, they need to collectively agree to develop what expectations of political culture Nigerians desire as a country and take steps to be receptive to actions that will lead Nigeria to that goal through democratic means. I sense a growing lethargy and anomie, understandably, with people saying they will not participate any further; this is a danger to meaningful change. Democracy is intended to protect societies from the tyranny of men over others, people who are empowered if left unchecked will gravitate towards tyranny. That is why people must never be tired of participating; the wider the participation in the collective decision of who governs, the bigger the fear of those who hope to deny citizens of their liberty. The entire country must, therefore, be prepared to rise as one great motive democratic force, to push this democracy to where we want it; the only cure for bad democracy is stronger, better democracy.