By Reuben Abati
“We don’t believe in cheating or rigging elections but also we don’t want other parties to cheat us, and that was why we encouraged the Kaduna State Independent Electoral Commission to come up with a fool-proof voting process.”
– Nasir el-Rufai
The prefatory statement above belongs to Nasir el-Rufai, the Governor of Kaduna, one of the few Governors who have consistently demonstrated faith in the deployment of technology to protect the integrity and credibility of the electoral process in Nigeria. He is the only one who has given effect to his conviction. In 2018, Kaduna state under his watch, conducted elections with an electronic voting system. This was the first time anyone in Nigeria would adopt electronic voting, and the second case of electronic voting in Africa, after Namibia. That year, the then extant law namely the Kaduna State Independent Electoral Commission Act No. 10 of 2012 was amended, to establish electronic voting in Section 16 (3) thereof. There were allegations of multiple voting and other challenges. But this did not deter Mallam Nasir el-Rufai.
On September 4, 2021, his administration repeated the same “offence”, if the adoption of modern technology by African electoral umpires can be so described, by ensuring that the Kaduna State Independent Electoral Commission (KADSIECOM), again conducted elections in the state’s local government areas in line with Section 16(3) of the KADIESCOM Act. At the end of the exercise, it was reported that the challenges observed in 2018 had been addressed. Multiple voting was no longer possible. The software had been upgraded to deny any voter an attempt to vote a second time. About 18, 000 ad hoc staff were deployed whose main assignment was the verification of the voter’s register. The Electronic Voting Machine (EVM) was a computerized box with simple Cancel and OK buttons that could be used even by the illiterate and the elderly. You select the logo of the party you want to vote for, and simply tap either OK or Cancel – a simple Yes or No choice. The Cancel button in fact allows you to change your mind. Each EVM was powered by a battery that could last up to 16 hours. KADIESCOM worked in collaboration with the telecommunication companies to provide the network for the immediate transmission of results. Voting took less than a minute.
The LGA election in Kaduna State on Saturday, September 4 was by no means perfect however. About 11 electronic voting machines were vandalised by suspected hoodlums. This should not be surprising. Violence is part of the sociology of Nigeria’s electoral process. Those who do not trust the system would always find a way to violate it. No matter how fool-proof a measure may be, Nigerians would always find a way to disrupt it. Oftentimes, out of raw scepticism. In the course of the elections in 19 LGAs, 41 EVMs were snatched across Kaduna State. Should anybody be surprised? The EVMs looked like boxes. In regular, manual, elections, the ballot box is the main victim in the hands of those who want to manipulate results. The only difference with an EVM is that it is electronic and has a digital footprint. Stealing or snatching it is pointless. The Kaduna State LGA elections have now ended. The APC won in 15 area councils. But the more interesting outcome was the disclosure that the Governor, Nasir el-Rufai lost to the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in his Ungwar Sarki Polling unit in Kaduna North Local Government Area. It is a major dent for a politician to lose in his own polling unit! It makes no difference if his party wins across the entire state. He will be constantly reminded that he could not even get the endorsement of his own immediate neighbours.
With electronic voting, it may be difficult to manipulate results, stuff ballot boxes or thump-print multiple ballot papers. It should be noted however, that voter turn-out in the Kaduna Local Government elections of September 4, 2021 was very low. This is a nationwide pattern, and it is one of the ills that must change to properly deepen participatory democracy not just in Nigeria, but across Africa. The big gap between inputs and outcomes in the electoral process in Africa has alienated the people from the system and from democracy itself. Why go out to vote when there are no guarantees that your vote will count or translate into improvements in your circumstances? Why vote for people who will get into positions of privilege on the wings of your efforts and end up forgetting you? The biggest threat to democracy in Africa is this trust deficit and the disconnect between the people and the actual value of elections.
This however should not discount the value of credibility, integrity, transparency and accountability in the electoral process. This is the objective of those who support the idea of electronic voting and the electronic transmission of results. Twice now, in 2018 and 2021, the El-Rufai administration has shown that it is doable. There may be hitches and challenges but these can be identified and fixed in subsequent elections. It may be argued that Kaduna state is relatively small (population – 6- 1 million) compared to Nigeria with a population of over 200 million and 774 local councils). But we have it on record that should Nigeria decide to adopt electronic voting, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) can deliver on that score. The GSM operators in the country have also openly said that they can provide the necessary services. There are certainly lessons that can be learnt from the Kaduna experience, and from other countries including Namibia and the West. The only problem we have in Nigeria is the refusal of Nigerian lawmakers at the Federal level to see the value of electronic voting. The adoption of electronic voting by Kaduna State sends a strong message to those members of the National Assembly who conveniently rushed to the toilet, or were absent, or lied shamelessly that there was no mobile telephony in their village when the National Assembly voted on the proposed Electoral Act (Amendment) Bill 2021.
Getting the right electoral framework for elections in Nigeria has been a major concern since the return to democratic rule in 1999: the 2001 Electoral Act, 2002 Electoral Act, 2006 Electoral Act and the 2010 Electoral Act. It has been majorly a trial and error process. In 2018, ahead of the 2019 general elections, the 8th Assembly passed a Bill which was forwarded to the President for his assent. The President rejected the Bill, four times, on the grounds that the proposed amendments to the law could not come into effect due to time constraints. We held the 2019 elections, which again expectedly threw up issues about the integrity of the electoral process and the need to modernise elections in line with global best practices. When the 9th National Assembly assumed office in June 2019, its Chairman, Dr. Ahmed Lawan promised Nigerians that the Electoral Amendment Bill would be treated as a priority assignment. Indeed, Lawan kept his word, as he did also with the Petroleum Industry Bill. But it is one thing to make a law. It is another thing to do so in public interest.
What was meant to be an opportunity to provide Nigerians with a progressive, forward-looking electoral framework ended up as a farce. In the second week of July, a bewildered electorate watched as Nigerian lawmakers created an ugly scene over Section 52 (2) and (3) of the Electoral Act Amendment Bill which stated that INEC “may transmit results of elections by electronic means where and when practicable.” The Senate passed the bill on July 15. The House of Representatives did so on July 16. Both chambers of the National Assembly later resolved that the electronic transmission of results would be allowed only with the express clearance of the National Communications Commission (NCC) and the National Assembly.
Thus, Nigeria’s lawmakers took away the independence of the country’s electoral body, a blatant violation of Section 78 of the 1999 Constitution, and a brazen attempt to sabotage the law. It was most disgraceful that even opposition politicians in the National Assembly could not vote in the people’s interest. There were other concerns: the decision to increase campaign expenses: to become President, you would need a minimum of N15 billion, Governor – N5 billion; Senator N1.5 billion, House of Representatives member N500 million and State House of Assembly member N50 million. In other words, you have to be wealthy to aspire to any important elective position in Nigeria. If this bill becomes law as proposed, only armed robbers and internet scammers would probably end up in high places in this country. President Buhari should not sign the Electoral Act Amendment Bill 2021. It takes the country backwards, not forwards. It is the handiwork of cowards and a backward National Assembly. In Kaduna State, Governor El-Rufai has shown that it is possible to try new options and possibilities, and deploy modern technology to leap-frog the process. The navel-gazing lawmakers in the National Assembly should be called out. One of the errant ones has since apologised to her constituents for going AWOL when she was most needed, but there are others, so pompous and confidently ignorant, they just don’t get it.