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2023: What Nigeria needs to conduct successful election via e-voting

In less than two years, over 84 million Nigerians who are registered to vote would head out again to elect new leaders. At least, most – if not all – voters – expect the wider use of the electronic voting (e-voting) system by the electoral umpire the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) in 2023 in order to reduce or possibly eliminate irregularities that have come to characterise the election process in Nigeria.

In recent times, two successful trials of e-voting in local government elections by the Kaduna State government have further accelerated the public calls for e-voting to be nationally adopted.

However, Nigeria would need to immediately increase the level of investments in telecoms infrastructure to be able to be successful. Experts at FBNQuest in a recent report note that Nigeria requires about $5 billion to provide the type of infrastructure that guarantees good and penetrative connectivity. Without these investments, the efficiency of the e-voting technology required for the 2023 elections would be in jeopardy.

E-voting is arguably the most difficult upgrade, as the technology involves the core of the entire electoral process: the casting and counting of votes, according to experts at the electoral knowledge network, ACE.

“E-voting greatly reduces direct human control and influence in this process and provides an opportunity to solve some old electoral problems, but it also introduces a whole range of new concerns. Therefore, e-voting can be expected to trigger more criticism and opposition than any other ICT application in elections,” experts note.

It is important to note that while the Kaduna State trial is an important use case, it may not be applicable to the general country scenario given the size and scope of the latter. Unlike Kaduna State, INEC is banking on using internet connectivity to achieve voter capturing, voting, and result transmission among others at the general elections.

In Kaduna, the Electronic Voting Machine (EVM) was a computerised box with simple Cancel and OK buttons that could be used by even the illiterate and the elderly. They did not need to fill an online form for pre-registration, requiring the use of the internet. The only requirement was to have a permanent voter’s card to show up, face the EVM, select the logo of the party they wanted to vote for, and simply tap either OK or Cancel – a simple Yes or No choice.

Read also: Okowa calls for united PDP as INEC introduces new electoral device

The INEC’s version is a bit more complicated than that. In July, the electoral body said by its own processes and procedures, it is dealing with four components of Electronic Voting System (EVS): Electronic Voter Register (EVR), Electronic Voting Machine (EVM), Electronic Voter Authentication (EVA), and Electronic Transmission of Results (ETR).

What it means for the voter is aside from your permanent voters’ card, your details and facials must be housed online to be eligible to vote. This is where the NCC comes in.

The subject of who controls the transmission of the entire process has been a subject of controversy between INEC and NCC. The Electoral Bill passed by the National Assembly states that INEC may consider electronic transmission provided the national network coverage is adjudged to be adequate and secure by the NCC and approved by the National Assembly.

Proponents of e-voting, however, would prefer the entire power or transmission to rest with INEC. But in all fairness, the technology that will power the transmission of results is under the purview of the NCC and at the moment the commission does not have enough to cover the whole country.

While making their submissions before the Senate in July, the NCC suggested that the e-voting process, from start to finish, would require a pervasive 3G network. Currently, the country can only muster less than 50 percent 3G coverage. As of 2020, the total active 3G subscriptions stood at 49.4 million compared with 50.4 million in 2019, representing a decline of about 1 million subscriptions.

The total 3G and 4G networks available as of 2020 were 85.9 million. Given the NCC’s calculation of two to three phones to one person, it is likely that fewer Nigerians have access to 3G networks. The low 3G coverage is mostly due to the poor investment in telecom infrastructure.

According to the NCC yearly report, foreign direct investments (FDI) into the sector have been down by 20 percent in the past three to four years.

Capital expenditure (CAPEX) in the sector declined in 2020 compared with the previous year. A full-year report by the NCC found that capital inflow into the telecoms industry in 2020 was approximately $417 million compared with $942.8 million in 2019.

As of December 2020, MTN deployed 14,612km on land and 15,244km submarine fibre optics; Globacom deployed 13,306km on land and 9,800km submarine fibre optics; 21st Century deployed 8,050km on land and 33km fibre optics, while ipNX deployed 1956km on land fibre optics.

This makes an aggregate of 37,924km of On-land Fibre Optics deployed as of December 2020, signifying a decline of 27.89 percent from the 52,589km deployed in the year 2019. Similarly, an aggregate of 25,077km submarine fibre optics was deployed by MTN, Globacom, 21st Century, and ipNX during the period under review. Signifying a 154.4 percent gross increase from the 9,856km recorded in 2019.

Investment in 2021 does not look to be doing any better as operators count losses in voice and data subscriptions. Broadband penetration is also off to a record low.

In the latest NCC report, in July, the penetration declined to 39.79 percent from 39.97 percent in June, representing a 0.18 percentage point drop. The decline means that broadband penetration is now 6.14 percentage points adrift of the all-time high set in October 2020, when it hit 45.93 percent. It later closed in December 2020 at 45.02 percent and has been on a downward slope since then.

Insecurity is a major contributor to the poor investment in the industry. Only recently the NCC ordered the shutdown of Telecoms services in Zamfara and other states in the North. Telcos have over 200 towers and other operations that will be affected by the shutdown. Already, the number of Nigerians without connectivity is over 60 percent of the population.

Although the NCC says the shutdown is for a period of two weeks, if the country does not address the insecurity in many parts of the country, more communities could be shut off from telecoms services, thereby potentially disenfranchising millions of Nigerians should the e-voting system be used.

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