• Friday, March 01, 2024
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In Nigeria’s elections, fraud is a built-in feature

In Nigeria’s elections, fraud is a built-in feature

Policemen idling away while a handful of thugs destroy ballot boxes, the election technology management tool inexplicably fails at the most critical point of operation, election officials arriving 4 hours late without ink and stamp, delayed pay for temporary workers, are deliberately incorporated into the process to manipulate the outcomes, writes ISAAC ANYAOGU.

There was a loud screech of car tyres, rapid footsteps, anguished cries, and instant violence. Thugs attack a polling unit at Okunmoyinbo Avenue, Ajah, in Lagos. They upturned plastic boxes, tore up ballot papers, broke chairs and desks, and descended on voters in the queue. Two policemen detailed to provide security were the first to flee.

Around Surulere, a largely middle-class neighbourhood in Lagos, voting was already underway on Saturday, February 25, when five hooded men drove into the area bearing guns and machetes. There’s no better crowd dispersal tool than riffles. Rapid fire gunshots, panic, and hysteria as both voters and electoral officers scamper for safety!

Voter suppression disguised as thuggery

voters
Just your regular revenue collection agents in Lagos, who also readjusts erring voters.

 

To be fair, thugs exist in many parts of Nigeria, but Lagos is the ancestral home for thuggery. In other parts of Nigeria, they are an oddity. In Lagos, the APC shares governance with them. During elections, they hand them briefs prescribing only as much mayhem that precludes upturning the process altogether. There are after all international observers, civil society groups, and the country’s largest media scrum to contend with. Besides, everybody and their dog has a camera-enabled phone.

In Nigeria’s electoral act, violence is a ground to cancel an election or withhold the results of a polling unit. It is however not grounds for a legal challenge of an election result. So the politicians set the objective strategically: cause only so much violence in opposition strongholds such that observers can say “Though there were pockets of violence, in some polling units, they were not material to affect the outcome”.

But its subterfuge, a clever ruse to disguise the strategy in plain sight. In reality, the grand scheme is voter suppression.

Unpopular political parties use shady methods to hold onto power in democratic societies all over the world. For instance, in the United States, voter suppression laws, gerrymandered voting districts, and unfair election rules that make it more difficult for groups that typically support the Democratic Party, like blacks, to vote, help the Republican Party maintain power in many Southern states.

Some Nigerian politicians also seek to exclude certain groups of voters but they lack the crooked sophistication and intellectual bandwidth needed to achieve the goal in a quasi-legal manner. Additionally, because elections are centrally controlled, it is difficult to fundamentally influence the election management process. So to level the playing field, they hire thugs.

Lagos state traffic personnel
Lagos state traffic personnel, often just a group of touts in brightly coloured uniforms

 

This is often done in connivance with security agencies. This is why, despite movement restrictions on election days, thugs have enough numbers and official cover to move around. Therefore violence is more likely to occur in neighborhoods with high ethnic diversity. It happens because thugs have been incorporated into the state’s operational architecture. Officials of the Lagos traffic agency routinely use their fists to prove a point or two, drug-addled gangsters double as revenue collection agents for local governments, and the governor only recently appointed a notorious tout to manage the state’s parks.

Prior to the elections, local leaders in backwater Lagos communities warned residents, especially those who are not Yorubas, (generally termed Igbos), that they risk grave consequences if they fail to support the APC. In a leaked audio tape posted online, a local community leader in Jakande, Eti-Osa LGA, threatened to deal with anyone who failed to vote for APC. Market leaders loyal to the APC threatened shop owners and in polling units, APC party agents were recorded warning anyone who won’t vote APC to go home. If they refuse, they would contend with thugs.

The thuggery that happens in other parts of Nigeria lacks the cohesion and top-down control that exists in Lagos. This is why in Rivers State, an oil hub, in the Niger Delta, the electoral heist that occurred was garden variety robbery. Riffles were trained on people. Ballots were mutilated with puerile nonchalance. INEC ad-hoc staff were openly induced with $100 bills. The electoral heist was so brazen, the perpetrators look stupid. In Kogi state, north-central Nigeria, the APC governor Yahaya Bello had people dig up the road leading to the district of the prominent opposition candidate so that election materials would not reach the district.

 

Declining voter turnout
Declining voter turnout is the best representation of distrust in democracy

 

Failed Election Technology Management Tool

On January 17, Mahmood Yakubu, chairman of Nigeria’s electoral body INEC was invited to give a speech at Chatham House, London. Speaking at Chatham House is how Nigerian politicians know they are now in the big leagues. The electoral umpire’s lecture was a post-mortem on the shambolic 2019 general elections

“A second lesson from the 2019 election is that early choice of election technology management tools, especially the main election technology is very critical for success,” he said. “We know that political actors often try to undermine the process by attacking the technology, casting doubts on its suitability by bypassing its use, or indeed seeking to undermine its security. This informed the early choice of a new voter accreditation technology using an electronic device called a Bimodal Voter Accreditation System (BIVAS). We have tested it in several by-elections and off-cycle governorship elections,” the crowd applauded.

Fired, he went on “In addition, the decision to make polling unit election results available for public viewing, which has always been a major demand by citizens and election observers follows into this early choice of election technology. The INEC results viewing portal the IRev is a dedicated web portal for the public view of polling unit results as soon as they are finalised on Election Day!” he said.

What happened barely a month after this speech, is the reason why Nigerians hate their leaders, why the country’s young people reached the conclusion, that it is a place that kills dreams and are leaving in droves. On the February 25 presidential vote, this same BIVAS technology, which Yakubu claimed had been tested in 105 communities, used in two sub-national elections in 2022 and which on that same day transmitted successfully the national assembly elections results, completely failed to transmit the presidential election results. According to INEC, there were ‘technical hitches”

Read also: Nigeria’s democracy remains flawed, says Otti

However, before the presidential election on February 25, Lawrence Bayode, the INEC deputy director of ICT appeared on a local television station with a copy of the BIVAS device. He said it would be used in accrediting voters, taking their biometric data and pictures, and after the result, it would use used to transmit the results.

“To check the bad guys, it is already programmed to work in only the polling unit that it would be deployed,” he said.

Each device takes 1,250 names in alphabetic order and authenticates a voter either through fingerprint or facial recognition. There’s a backup at the backend and the server is hack-proof he said.
Stripped off all technicalities, BIVAS is a machine that captures the biometric data of a voter and sends scanned copies of election results into a viewing portal.

 

BVAS machine voters
Nigeria will save billions with a BVAS machine voters simply thumbprint on their preferred candidates

Now Nigeria is not short of IT professionals, if anything, the country is supplying a significant chunk of the world’s talent. Andela, based in Lagos is the global marketplace for tech talent, helping companies build remote engineering teams, with some of the most exquisite coders who design products that help companies solve problems they are not even aware they are having. Payment solutions company Flutterwave has morphed into a unicorn and some young founders of Paystack sold the company for millions of dollars. Yet, in a country brimming with tech talents, the critical piece of technology required to transmit results failed. The country that has launched a satellite and where Elon Musk first decided to launch Starlink in Africa, can’t use technology to vote or transmit results.

It’s rather simpler and more secure to have voters thumbprint on the BIVAS machine to choose their candidates rather than constitute a nuisance buying ballot boxes and spending millions on ballot papers that will end up being snatched and stolen and mutilated. To underscore how the process is built to support fraud, some of the result sheets purportedly uploaded and viewed on the IRev, to the incredulity of voters, were different from what was recorded at the polling units.

Adebowale Adedayo, popularly called ‘Mr Macaroni’, an actor, comic, a good governance activist, had joined in the ENDSARS protests in 2022 against police brutality. He inspired thousands of young people to register for the elections. On February 25, he was early at his polling unit and joined hundreds in voting. Like many, he didn’t go home, he waited till 11:00 pm to ensure that the result was uploaded to the INEC server. To his chagrin, the results from INEC’s viewing portal were different from the result obtained at the polling unit!

Nigeria’s elections

The Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) puts broadband penetration in the country at 46 percent as of January 2023 with the total number of mobile internet subscribers put at over 152 million. The increase in broadband penetration has been majorly responsible for the growth in cashless transactions in Nigeria. The cashless transactions increased to N277.61 trillion in 2022 and approximately 54,725 kilometres of fibre cables were laid across the country.

Analysts have wondered at the spectacular failure of the BIVAS machines and reached the conclusion that the purported technical glitches were only cover to allow compromised officials of the electoral body to bypass the transparency limitations placed by its own technology to arrive at pre-determined results.

In a country that saw 17 percent voter turn-out in 2019, voters were buoyed up by the use of technology, the commission said it has already printed new 13 million Permanent Voter Cards and eventually saw a voter roll of over 93 million Nigerians.

Logistical problems

A day to the February 25 presidential vote, sensitive election materials have already been distributed in all the 36 states. In Lagos, it arrived four days prior to the election under the heavy presence of security agencies at the Central Bank of Nigeria headquarters in Marina.

Olusegun Agbaje, the Lagos State Resident Electoral Commissioner, told journalists at the CBN office in Marina that all the materials would be distributed on Wednesday to the local governments where the electoral officers from each council would do the final distributions on the election day. But on election day, election materials that arrived the states some four days to the election, got to polling units which were sometimes a walking distance from where they are stored four hours late. This is despite restriction of movement which means the roads are free for vehicular movement.

As early as 7:00 am on February 25, over a dozen voters had already converged at Polling Unit 025, Obalende, Eti-Osa LGA, but as of 9:00am, officials of the Independent Electoral Commission (INEC) had yet to arrive. It is 5-minute drive between Obalande and Marina where the materials are stored.

It was the same scene at a polling station in Umuahia, Abia state’s Umuda Isingwu village, where Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Nigeria’s former finance minister and current World Trade Organization chief, had come to vote.” I have been waiting for one hour. Many villagers have been here since 7 a.m. It is 11.23 a.m. now. Where are the INEC officers?” She tweeted.

In many polling stations, the BVAS machine failed. After waiting for nearly half an hour, Nyesom Wike, the Rivers State Governor, could not be validated to cast his vote at Polling Unit 8, Ward Nine, Rumueprikon, Obio-Akpor, following the failure of the Bio-Modal Voter Accreditation System (BIVAS). But this is not the only case. When the machine is not disputing the voter’s gender, it is simply not responding.

One ad-hoc official kept hitting and taking it up in the air at different angles in one polling unit, ostensibly searching for network. At some polling units, after accreditation, it could not transmit results, adding to tensions in an already charged environment. Some ad-hoc officials said they uploaded the results of the legislative elections but the presidential vote, which happened the same day, failed.

INEC had asked for N305 billion for the conduct of the 2023 general election last May, a 62 percent increase over what was spent on the 2019 general elections, but pouring more money into the elections has not alleviated the familiar frustration of Nigeria’s logistical nightmare.

Globally, the average Cost per Registered Voter Index (COVI) measures the adequacy of election funding, and stable democracies spend on average between $1 and $3 on the average cost per voter. In transitional democracies, it ranges from $4 to $8, while the cost is fixed at $9 and above in post-conflict democracies. Elections are often more expensive in countries without strong democratic traditions.

Using the metrics above, INEC has drawn up its budgets to accommodate for exigencies. INEC has put the cost per voter for the 2023 election at an estimate of $5.39, with a target of 100 million registered voters for the election. Using the N565 to $1 parallel market exchange rate, the Commission budgeted N305 billion for the 2023 elections.

During the last general elections, INEC spent N189.2 billion. The cost per voter was fixed at $6.24 at an exchange rate of N305, with a total of 84 million registered voters. INEC spent N108.8 billion to conduct the 2015 general elections. The breakdown of the amount per the 68, 833, 476 registered voters translates to N1,749.38 per Nigerian voter, or $8.33 at the exchange rate of N210 per dollar at the time.

INEC’s 2023 budget shows that 77 percent of the total budget went into logistics. Yet logistics, closely followed by violence, would dog the 2023 general elections, creating conditions where legal cases would flood the courts after the elections.

Apart from the government’s budgetary provisions, multilateral and other agencies provided support. For example, the European Union created a programme tagged EU Support to Democratic Governance in Nigeria (EU-SDGN) Phase II, which saw the EU provide €39m support. The support was given to the INEC and other civil society groups. The government warned Nigerians off the roads, INEC had four years to prepare and the country’s security apparatus was at the INEC’s beck and call. Yet INEC’s competence was so glaring it seemed almost deliberate.

Actions like withholding the allowances of some temporary workers, making shoddy arrangements for their welfare, and inability to fuel vehicles may seem like the usual incompetence of a backwater poor, African country, look under the hood and a pattern emerges.

Denouement

Following the shameful 2023 general elections conducted by INEC, it took the maturity of those INEC claimed had lost the elections to bring the nation back from the brink. Months after, the election viewing portal still has incomplete results and tallies do not agree with the results announced by INEC in states like Rivers.

Analysts have been gobsmacked by the behaviour of the electoral umpire. Why did it stubbornly insist on announcing results that were not uploaded on the platform it had they would emanate in its guidelines? The president was not going to be sworn into office regardless of who won the election until May, what was the hurry to announce results it had not uploaded? Whose interests are best served in an election that lacks transparency? What is the fate of a democracy where judges have increasingly become the final arbiters?

INEC and the ruling party are content to tell aggrieved political parties to go to court but an African saying which says that “when a thief tells you to go to court, his brother is the judge,” is instructive. Nigeria’s apex court which awarded an aspirant who came fourth a governorship seat and upturned the primary election of a senatorial candidate validly elected to represent his party all based on technicalities has no moral claims to the legitimacy or inspire trust.

Since 1963, Nigeria has been unable to conduct a free, fair, and credible election, largely because there are no consequences for the bad behavior of electoral officers and corrupt politicians. Often, the electoral umpire is beholden to the party in power whose continued existence, is dependent on ignoring INEC’s incompetence. It’s an evil circle politicians keep in place to perpetuate their stay in power.

On the morning, Bola Ahmed Tinubu was declared President-Elect, on March 1, 2023, the mood around the country was that of funeral sadness, like the day after a carnage, the morning of a bloody coup because it was the same feeling around the land, many felt a heist had occurred, they were only at loss to explain how it had happened.