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BusinessDay

INEC fails Nigeria on e-transmission of results

Solomon Ogidan, a 29-year-old computer scientist and a volunteer agent for a top political party in Nigeria’s February 25 elections, flayed his hands in the air in exasperation at the repeated failed attempts by the official of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to put in the password to transmit results from his polling unit.

He had covered 20 polling units for his party and encountered the same problem in eight of them. In the polling units where the password was not a problem, the INEC officials were unable to operate the Bimodal Voter Accreditation System (BVAS) machine.

“In one of the polling units, they had two BVAS machines that were supposed to be operated by the two officials present. But one of them said she could not operate the machine. The other officials said the password they were given was the wrong password. Why would INEC deliberately give some of its officials in Lagos the wrong password?” Ogidan said.

The long-awaited general elections were held on Saturday but not without the usual dramas that characterise elections in Nigeria. For many people, this election was supposed to be different. The electoral umpire was supposed to have learnt from the challenges from the previous elections and made adequate preparations to ensure those problems were not encountered again.

This was largely responsible for the approval of N305 billion for INEC by the President Muhammadu Buhari-led administration for the 2023 election. The budget is the biggest for the electoral body. INEC received N234 billion in 2019, a record compared to N18.8 billion used to execute the same presidential and National Assembly elections in 2015.

The budget for the 2023 elections also meant that INEC’s budget for each voter is the biggest at N3,263, compared to the past four previous elections. In 2011, the voter per capita was N1,671; it dropped to N1,569 in 2015 but rose to N2841 in 2019. The N305 billion is almost 15 times the amount of money the South African Independent Electoral Commission is getting for the 2024 election. The country has approved an equivalent of N20.01 billion for its next election.

An information systems and cloud computing expert who prefers to remain anonymous said four years was enough for INEC to build and strengthen the application and software it needed to conduct seamless elections in 2023, instead the election on Saturday was only about 35 percent tech-driven and more manual.

“From what I could see and from their press release, the web applications were not ‘load’ and ‘stress’ tested,” said Emeka Okoye, a software and knowledge engineer. “Not doing that alone before a big event like an election showed incompetence, ignorance and irresponsibility. They had no excuses because they knew how many uploads will be made based on BVAS, what time it will be made based on the voting period, what type of data will be sent.”

Beyond getting voters to register and printing Permanent Voter Cards (PVCs) for 93.5 million eligible voters, capturing their faces before they vote, the rest of the process was largely manual. Because most of the BVAS failed to connect either because the official said there was no internet or the network was malfunctioning or there was approval that needed to be obtained, most of the results had to be taken by an INEC official to the collating centres, where they were computed by senior INEC officials.

“How can leaders with empathy allow their citizens to suffer so much; from the laborious process of getting a PVC just to be identified as eligible to vote, to spending a day waiting for accreditation and voting,” Aruma Oteh, former treasurer of the World Bank, said.

Experts say the failure INEC recorded was not due to the breakdown of the machine but from avoidable human errors, poor training of officials, and deliberate sabotage. It is also important to note that Mahmud Yakubu, the chairman of INEC, had shown reluctance to the idea of results only being transmitted electronically.

In early 2022, he raised eyebrows when he admitted that the commission would transmit election results electronically and collate the same manually.

“The law does not require that collation be done on the basis of uploaded results, but on results manually transferred to the collation centres. But where there is a contest, the uploaded result supersedes,” Yakubu said during an interview.

Read also: How INEC failed Nigerians, according to EU mission

The BVAS, according to an expert who wanted to remain anonymous to speak freely, was supposed to provide a record of accredited voters because it houses the list of all voters who passed accreditation. It was also supposed to provide a record of the results – that is, a picture of the signed result sheets. The BVAS then uploads the results for the different elections.

“This is where the problem is. You now have to alter the results to tally with the number of registered voters on a polling-unit-by-polling-unit basis. What they did was to prevent the uploading of results which is still present on the BVAS machines. This they did by not opening the portal or not providing login details for the people to upload. Remember, once it is uploaded, it is available to the public view and when it is uploaded, details are recorded showing where, when, and by who,” the expert said.

According to multiple sources, the BVAS experienced a shutdown for nearly seven hours, preventing polling units from transmitting the results electronically. In 2022, a Vanguard report showed that the results could go through intermediaries known as Registration Area Technicians or RATECHs, who operate at the ward levels. The job of the RATECHs is to review election results (Form EC8A), uploaded from the polling unit under the ward before transferring them to the INEC Results Viewing Portal (IReV). Some experts have wondered why the BVAS cannot transmit simultaneously to both the INEC server and the IReV.

INEC, however, said on Sunday that the challenges it faced were not due to intrusion or sabotage of its systems, and the IReV remains well-secured. It said its technical team was working assiduously to solve all the outstanding problems, adding that users of the IReV would have noticed improvements since Saturday night. The commission did not address the question of who informed their officials at the polling units not to upload results.

“Election result database is not even supposed to be sophisticated. A simple spreadsheet is enough to manage election results. What is very clear is the N305 billion was spent on incompetence,” Okoye said.