Why did digital technology fail in Nigeria’s 2023 elections?

BVAS Machine In Action/CREDIT:Techcabal
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As attention turns to opposition parties’ petitions against Nigeria’s disputed 2023 presidential election, it is time to revisit the failure of the Bimodal Voter Accreditation System (BVAS). According to the complaints of the Labour Party and People’s Democratic Party, not only did the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) fail to comply with the Electoral Act 2022, which allows for the electronic transmission of results in real-time, but the presidential election was marred with irregularities, putting into contestation the efficacy of digital tools in election management. In other words, the technology intended to protect the election from rigging largely failed. This was less because of the equipment itself, and more because of deliberate subversion by those entrusted to manage the process.

So what does this mean for Nigerian elections, and how the system can be strengthened in the future?

What was BVAS supposed to do?

BVAS was supposed to safeguard democracy. At the registration stage, it serves as a voter enrolment device, while at the voting stage, it performs the dual function of accrediting voters and transmitting the results to the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) Results Viewing Portal (IREV). By using fingerprint and facial identity to prevent multiple or underage voting, and providing a secure way for results to be transmitted, BVAS and IREV were supposed to reduce the scope for manipulation.

This was not a completely new development, but was rather the latest in a long iteration in which Nigeria – and over 25 other African countries – have increasingly looked to digital solutions to electoral problems. Long before the start of Nigeria’s fourth republic, national and state elections suffered from integrity deficits associated with fraud and violence, prompting the INEC to embrace a digital transformation drive that witnessed the introduction of the automated fingerprint identification system in 2011, Smart Card Readers (SCR) in 2015, the Z-pad in 2020, and the BVAS in 2021.

The Digital Journey

Fulfilling the dual role of verifying the permanent voter’s card and authenticating the fingerprints of voters, the SCR, which relies on cryptographic technologies, was designed to reduce the occurrence of multiple voting and inflation of votes. In terms of ensuring the credibility of elections, the SCR wasn’t particularly effective. Beyond technical glitches and human errors, the introduction of incident forms to record the number of voters that were not accredited due to technical glitches but were, nonetheless, allowed to cast their ballot provided a loophole for electoral officials to bypass the use of the SCR and perpetuate the same electoral malpractices that characterized previous elections. The Z-pad, a result-capturing device which enabled the transmission of results to the INEC’s website, was subsequently introduced in the 2020 Nasarawa Central Constituency by-election.

Notwithstanding the use of these digital solutions, the hope of a credible and transparent electoral process across Nigeria remained elusive until the introduction of BVAS/IREV system in 2021. First deployed in the Isoko South Constituency by-election in Delta State, the distinctive feature of this approach was that results would be digitally transmitted to an online platform at the national level, allowing citizens, civil society groups, parties and observers to check their credibility in real time.

The 2023 Presidential Elections

With the introduction of BVAS came a strong sense of optimism that perhaps the problems that have saddled previous elections could be overcome. However, even while voting was still ongoing, it became clear that this optimism was misplaced. On the one hand, BVAS was never going to be able to have any impact on the background conditions that can render an election problematic, such as insecurity and violence. On the other hand, the new technology failed to prevent the alteration of results in some areas, in part because results did not appear on the IREV system as promised. Consequently, popular trust in the political system was not restored.

So what went wrong?

In the main, the BVAS kits worked well when it came to accrediting voters. The real problems began when it came to transmitting the results of the presidential elections to the IREV portal in real-time. Partly as a result of poor communication of likely timelines, and partly due to unexplained delays, results were slow to start coming in, and never did for some areas, undermining public confidence.

Why was this process so haphazard?

Technology is operated by people and in countries with weak institutions and limited political trust, this can be a problem. Beyond the accreditation of voters, and transmission of polling unit results to the IREV portal, every other stage of the electoral process involves excessive human involvement, creating opportunities for manipulation. After voting is concluded, the ballot papers are manually counted and recorded on a result sheet by the presiding officer. This result sheet is then scanned, using the BVAS device, and transmitted to the IREV portal. If this was the end of human involvement in the electoral process, the outcry that greeted the outcome of the presidential elections would not have been so loud – but it was not.

In the words of Maria Orozova, “Automation, optimization and other software implementations are only as effective as the human strategy around them”. In essence, for transformation to truly materialize, “the people, processes and technology have to all work together.”

In the Nigerian case, the vulnerability of the system to human interference appears to have led to major problems for two reasons. First, INEC spent too little time training its officials to avoid teething problems. Second, INEC effectively lost control over officials in some areas, so that due process was not followed, and the electoral process was effectively captured. A parallel vote tabulation conducted by Yiaga, for example, found that the results in Rivers and Imo states did not match their figures, and some officials operated in a partisan way.

What next for Nigerian elections?

In responding, we must not throw the baby away with the bathwater. What failed in Nigeria was not the technology, but the people managing it. In countries such as Kenya, it took many iterations to get the technology to work well. This included both amending the technology, updating training manuals, and improving staff training. It also required observers and civil society organisations to develop a better understanding of how the technology is supposed to work, so that they could use their influence to push for further improvements.

Learning from this example, Nigeria would be best served not by abandoning the system, but further investing in it – improving the “human” aspect of its elections, so that the technology works as intended.

Fidel Abowei is a research consultant with a PhD in International Relations from the University of Buckingham.

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