• Saturday, December 02, 2023
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2023 election: Nigeria’s digital infrastructure faces biggest test

2023 election: Nigeria’s digital infrastructure faces biggest test

For Emmanuel Yemgbe, a 29-year-old Nigerian, who joined over 1.3 million registered voters in the country’s capital to vote in the last local government election, the experience with the Bimodal Voters Accreditation System (BVAS) was frustrating.

He had got to the polling unit at 7:00 am, hoping to avoid the long queue. But it wasn’t to be, as the election – the first to be organised by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) this year – witnessed a large turnout. He was assigned a number above 50 when he got to the centre. Unfortunately, the voting materials and INEC officials did not arrive until 10:00 am for a process that was scheduled to start at 8:30 am.

Once the voting kicked off, voters faced a new challenge: the INEC machines were taking time to capture people, and at some point, there was a long break because the face recognition machine malfunctioned and the INEC official had to put a call through to one of the engineers.

BVAS is a successor to Z-Pad, which INEC deployed in the Edo State governorship off-cycle election in 2020. It combines voter enrolment, voter accreditation, and results interface capabilities in one device. Theoretically, this should eliminate the gaps that enable analogue manipulation of numbers in elections.

“When it was my turn, the machines were first malfunctioning and not picking up thumbprints and face identification until the technicians took more than 40 minutes for me to complete thumbprint, facial recognition, and actual voting,” Yemgbe told BusinessDay.

Damilola Babatola, one of the National Youth Service Corps members who functioned as a polling unit officer in one of the six wards in Abuja, said there were several reasons why the machine malfunctioned. She said the chief reason was the unwillingness of some voters to cooperate with the machine requirements.

For example, facial recognition would not capture people frowning or those with scarves on their heads or excess makeup.

Babatola, however, acknowledged that the machines did malfunction, saying the officials had to call the engineers for help each time.

Importantly, the officials needed to ensure that the area where the polling unit is located has access to the internet, otherwise, it will be impossible to carry out the voting process.

So far, INEC has tested the voting technology in three states, namely Delta (Isoko South 1 State Constituency Bye-election), Anambra (gubernatorial election), and Abuja (LGA elections). In Anambra, the complaints were very similar to what voters experienced in Abuja.

Digital infrastructure and credible election

Since the turn of the democratic era in 1999 – or any era before that, Nigeria has had little or no success regarding the conduct of credible elections. Now, for the 2023 elections, the country is putting all its eggs in digital technology to deliver what it most craves. The country now has a refurbished electoral law that approves the use of the electronic voting system for the general elections next year.

It will be the first election that voters will be required to register online, carry out 90 percent of the entire voting process using machines with human interference reduced to the barest, and the election results will be transmitted via online channels – again removing human influences.

Voters like Yemgbe agree that electronic voting is the best strategy to reduce, if not totally eliminate, electoral malfeasance. But they are skeptical about the health of the machines and whether the country has enough infrastructure to go around when the big election comes calling in February next year.

Experts also say the existing digital infrastructure in the country faces its biggest test ever, with the general elections looming.

“Fibre infrastructure is key to stable and uninterrupted internet access, which is key to the proper functioning of the electronic voting materials,” said Rotimi Akapo, partner and head of telecommunications, media and technology practice group at Advocaat Law Practice. “This is why the resolution of the issues around the reasonable provision of access to Right of Way (RoW) by states is important. Most telcos and independent infrastructure providers are ready to deploy fibre but the RoW issue is a major obstacle to deployment.”

While the 3G network is the minimum requirement to power BVAS, it does not deliver seamless service for the technology. For example, during the gubernatorial election in Anambra, INEC’s presiding officials in one of the communities called Dunukofia, which is mostly covered by 3G networks, had to enlist local commercial motorcyclists to take them to neighbouring communities, where they could access the 4G network to download BVAS updates.

“BVAS is like an Android phone; it needs to show 4G to show that it is connected,” Babatola said.

In cases where the network assigned to them by INEC failed, they had to put on their mobile hotspot to access the 4G network.

The 4G network requirement could present a difficult challenge for INEC officials in the general elections, given that 4G infrastructure covers only about 10 percent of the population. What that means is that in places without 4G infrastructure, the officials would not be able to get the required BVAS update to carry on with their work.

Wole Abu, chief executive officer of Liquid Telecom Nigeria, told BusinessDay that in view of the election, there was an urgent need for accelerated fibre and base tower station (BTS) deployments.

Currently, only about 10 percent of BTS are connected by fibre.

He estimates that Nigeria requires $1.2 billion to $1.5 billion to achieve its digital infrastructure requirements.

The World Bank has also noted that the total estimated incremental investment required for the delivery of the plan over the next five years across all categories is estimated at below $5 billion. The resultant impact of this investment based on the planned 30-40 percent increase in broadband penetration is estimated at up to five percent of GDP or approximately $25 billion.

The country requires about 120,000km of fibre infrastructure to deliver high-speed internet but it currently has 54,725km available, leaving 65,275km as the deficit. To fund the deficit, experts estimate that it will cost about $13,500 per km of fibre, which amounts to about $1.1 billion.

Electronic voting in other countries

Chidi Odinkalu, professor of Practice in International Human Rights Law at the Fletcher School, Tufts University, Massachusetts, recently noted that BVAS, being a technology solution based on artificial intelligence, is only as good as both the age of the data and the training that the algorithms receive.

Therefore, according to him, the use of the technology as a solution on the scale required for credible election administration in Nigeria is challenging, given its flawed reputation and at a time when many of its pioneers are pulling back from it.

Germany, Ireland, Paraguay and the Netherlands are among countries that dumped e-voting and reverted to old voting systems. The Netherlands, for example, went back to using paper ballots in 2007, after anti-e-voting activities showed that it was not secure, using experimental hacking.

Germany stopped using voting machines in 2009 after a constitutional court ruled they were not transparent enough. Norway tried internet votes between 2011 and 2013 but decided not to use them because of public perceptions on the security of the vote.

Read also: ‘Not voting is still a vote, for the status quo’ – Ayisha Osori

However, Poynter Institute, an international media institute, reports that there are about 25 countries in the world where electronic voting is working efficiently. For example, since 2000, 100 percent of Brazilian voters have used the electronic system and Poynter claims that no fraud has been confirmed so far. The adoption of electronic voting in Brazil also led to growth in electoral participation, and the number of people disenfranchised reduced drastically.

However, Brazil’s achievement in electronic voting is only possible because as of January 2022, internet penetration stood at 77.87 percent, compared to Nigeria’s 41 percent as of December 2021.

Also, unlike Nigeria’s 54,725km of fibre, Brazil has 400,000km fibre backbone, which is present in more than 2,300 municipalities in the country. The country also had 94,442 base tower stations (BTS) as of 2019, compared to Nigeria’s 53,460 in 2021.

Funding digital infrastructure

In its annual report, the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) said capital inflow (foreign direct investment) into the Nigerian telecoms industry dropped by 125.8 percent in 2020 compared to 2019. The industry had deployed $942.8 million in 2019, only to see it drop to $417.4 million in 2020.

Abu said investment in digital infrastructure had reduced because of the absence of supporting infrastructures such as road network and power, leading to high capital and operating expenditures for rural connectivity.

People in low-income and underserved areas are about 70 percent of the digitally excluded population. Investors are also discouraged by the widespread insecurity in the country.

The National Executive Council had moved to stimulate investment in digital infrastructure with the State Accelerated Broadband Initiative included in the National Broadband Plan 2020-2025. The initiative was designed to address the infrastructure deficits in the telecoms sector and required the creation of an N265 billion fund.

The NCC will support the infrastructure companies (InfraCos) responsible for deploying broadband, with a subsidy of N65 billion, while the InfraCos would raise the remaining N200 billion.

“Some licensees have returned their licences because they are unable to provide advance counterpart funding, which is a condition precedent to receiving NCC funds,” Abu said.

According to Akapo, the government does not need to spend money on infrastructure but it can create a conducive environment for telecom investors to be attracted to deploy capital.

Some of the major issues investors need government intervention include foreign exchange, multiple taxation, forward-looking regulation, RoW fee, proper and stable policy implementation.

“Easy repatriation of profit is also important as investors will not invest where they have to jump through hoops to repatriate profits,” Akapo said. “Government does not even need to spend a kobo. They should just deal with the issues above. The telcos and independent infrastructure providers will invest as long as they are sure they will reap the fruits of their investments.”