Electronic transmission: Senate in the eye of the storm

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9th National Assembly is facing a crisis of credibility; many Nigerians do not believe that the current set of lawmakers have the interest of the country at heart when it comes to doing their job on the floor of the parliament.

If there were doubts over conduct of the All Progressives Congress (APC) controlled parliament, particularly the Senate, the recent decision of the lawmakers on electronic transmission of results has put paid to the matter. The House of Representatives had given their approval to the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to go ahead when it deems it fit to use electronic transmission.

But, much to consternation of members of the main opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP), civil society organisations and ordinary Nigerians on the streets, the Senate voted to cede the power to determine the use of electronic transmission of results in an election to office holders and politicians. Senate’s position is that INEC may consider electronic transmission provided the national network coverage is adjudged to be adequate and secure by the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) and that the National Assembly must subsequently give its approval. If this amendment sails through, it would cede part of INEC’s jobs to the NCC and the National Assembly. The NCC is an agency under the Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy. The appointment of its director-general (DG) is under the purview of the president and by convention, the DG works on the mandate of the latter, as well as that of the minister that supervises the agency.

A volte-face?

Many Nigerians were shocked by what appeared like a volte-face on the part of the Senate. It suggests that either the lawmakers are not in tune with the yearnings of Nigerians to stop the menace of election rigging or they simply do not care what the electorates want. Many transactions in the country today are done online: application for international passport, drivers’ license, national card, JAMB examination, the release of JAMB results, bank transactions to mention just a few.

Besides, the electoral commission has been fine-tuning its arrangement for the innovation and has been carrying all the stakeholders along, including telecom operators, the NCC and the National Assembly. INEC has been vociferous in its demand for the enabling law to give Nigerians the kind of elections they have been yearning for. Not to appear as the stumbling block to INEC’s request, some principal officers of the National Assembly had boasted that they would give the country a new Electoral Act that would facilitate free, fair and credible elections; the subsisting one was last amended more than 10 years ago. This explains the public outrage against the senators who voted against giving the commission the wherewithal to do its job.

INEC has been test running the idea for some time and was disappointed by the turn of events at the Red Chamber of the National Assembly. The directive to electoral officials to take a picture of result sheets signed by all stakeholders at polling units and transmit same electronically to the commission’s headquarters during last year’s elections in Edo and Ondo states were hailed as largely responsible for the success recorded in the two governorship elections. This reinforced the determination of the commission to push for an enabling law to back electronic transmission of election results.

INEC National Commissioner in charge of Information and Voter Education, Festus Okoye said INEC has been working on this idea for years and is ready for its implementation once it gets the legal backing to do so. He said constitutionally INEC is the one that has been given the power to organize, undertake and supervise all elections recognized under the 1999 Constitution and that He the commission has promised the Nigerian people that it will continue to improve with every election.

INEC’s preparedness:

Okoye who spoke on a current affairs programme on Raypower monitored in Lagos added: “Over time, we have been exploring electronic solutions to every aspect of our work, to enhance the integrity of our electoral process and the confidence people have in the process. We have been working on this for some time and it is only when we are sure that the solution we are proposing is ready for implementation that we unveil it. So, the commission has been trying out different aspects of transmission of election results electronically for quite a while.

“It is on this premise that we organized a series of stakeholder engagements involving the NCC and the telecom operators, to firm up our resolve to transmit election results electronically. Based on this resolve and the work we have done on it so far, we have been uploading polling unit results from different parts of the country during elections. We have organized up to 26 elections to date since we started exploring this option and have been uploading polling unit results in all these elections. So, we are confident that what we are doing is in conformity with the law and that we are also conforming to the wishes of the Nigerian people.”

The INEC commissioner acknowledged that every electronic device has its challenges. His words: “We are not saying there might not be challenges in the area of transmission of results but what we are saying is that Nigerians should have confidence in the ability of this commission to do what is right. If at the end of the day, after broad powers have been given to us to transmit election results, we are convinced that the processes and the procedure we have put in place are not robust enough for the 2023 election, we will inform the Nigerian people that this is where we are. In a nutshell, we are not claiming to have extraordinary powers; what we are saying is, give us broad powers to deploy relevant technology to deepen the electoral process to make future elections credible and transparent.”

Over the years, there have been allegations of the manipulation of the process, particularly at the level of collation of the results, which riggers the upper hand. This usually casts doubts on the outcome of elections. It was against this background that the idea of electronic transmission was mooted by INEC. Experts believe that if the idea is embraced, it could drastically reduce, if not eliminate the incidence of manipulation of figures by election riggers. It sounded like a good idea and, as a result, many Nigerians have been hailing it and wishing to see it materialise.

INEC’s constitutional responsibility:

Okoye said what the National Assembly is currently proposing will limit the rights and responsibilities imposed on INEC by the constitution. He said: “If you look at Section 78 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, the registration of voters and the conduct of elections shall be under the supervision and direction of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). If we look at the power granted us by Section 160 of the Constitution, we have been given the power to regulate our procedure and also confer powers and impose duties on any officer or authority, to decide our functions.

“Section 160 goes on to provide that in the case of INEC that this power shall not be subject to the approval of the President. These are powers granted to the commission. In other words, the commission has the power and the right to impose duties on any officer of the NCC, by giving them directives on what to do in relation to the performance of our function. But, so far, we have been very consultative in our approach to issues, so with the transmission of election results, we are still going to consult all the stakeholders.

“In a meeting we held with the NCC and the telecom operators in March 2018, the consensus was that the idea was workable and practicable and that the commission could come up with the procedure to actualize it. So, with the issue of poor communication in some parts of the country, we are still going to consult with the operators, if we get the assurance that they can come up with the mechanism that would enable us to implement the programme, we will proceed.”

The Chairman, Partners for Electoral Reforms, Ezenwa Nwangwu concurs with Okoye. He said the NCC prevaricated when it came to the National Assembly because what is on their website about Nigeria’s internet penetration level did not agree with what was stated on the floor of the National Assembly. He said INEC had a meeting with the NCC and telecom operators in 2018 and the consensus was that the support system that the commission needs to do electronic transmission was already in place.

Challenges not insurmountable:

Nwangwu said the proposal that INEC must go through two levels of approvals to deploy electronic transmission would erode the independence given to the commission by the constitution if it eventually becomes law. His words: “All that erodes the constitutional stipulation that guarantees that the commission will have to conduct elections without recourse to extraneous influence. So, the National Assembly and the NCC becomes truly the unholy negative, extraneous influence on the conduct of elections; and that is the worry.

“INEC is clear and citizens are also very clear about what we are asking for. We are not unmindful of the challenges that technology poses, especially in a country that perhaps does not have the relative backbone to do that. But, to now use that as a reason not to make a law that can guarantee effective use of technology, especially the internet during elections is a huge challenge.”

Nwangwu said the terrain in different parts of the country does pose a challenge when it comes to elections. His words: “Sometimes, we need to wait for days for results to come from some backwater communities. So, the situation cannot be the same in every part of the country. When electronic transmission of results was done in Edo and Ondo states last year, I think we had about 70 per cent success in those two states. So, INEC has been doing electronic transmission of results in the past. The essence of all these is to ask the National Assembly to protect electoral integrity. Even if we do it in 10 per cent of the country or 50 per cent of the country, the results that would come from such places can now be protected by the law.

“What INEC did was to go to the National Assembly and say we are making progress; we have taken definite steps to ensure electoral integrity and transparency but we need you to give us a law that would help us to protect all these initiatives. INEC is not unmindful of the challenges associated with it, but I believe it will overcome those challenges gradually until a time when we can have the whole country covered. But we are not going to wait and say until we can cover the whole country, we will not do it.

A conspiracy?

“What is happening is a conspiracy by the class to ensure that conversations about improving elections, about electoral transparency and integrity, are reversed. This is all about devious advantage; we were beginning to see a situation where people can no longer win elections through collusion with electoral officials, the votes were beginning to count. If we continue to make progress along this line, we would have solved the problem, because collation has been the weakest link so far.

“So, politicians don’t want to open that collation area for oversight, for engagement. If you follow what happened in Imo State, this whole idea about once a Returning Officer makes a call it is final. Citizens through electronic transmission of results can have something through which we can confront such shenanigans when it happens. So, it is about dubious advantage, it is about winning at all costs and it is about ensuring that the leadership recruitment process is out of the control of the election management body and out of the control of the voters. They want to ensure that we continue with this idea of win and meet me in court.”

The INEC commissioner said no system is foolproof and that the idea of foot-dragging on electronic transmission of results because the lawmakers envisage some challenges is counterproductive. He added: “Even with our present procedure, there are challenges. So, when we adopt electronic transmission of results, there will equally be challenges. The issue of electronic voting is a package, which has four components. The first component is the electronic voters’ register, which we already have. The second component is the electronic voting machine, which we intend to do by 2023 general elections. The third component is electronic authentication of voters’ identity, while the fourth component is the electronic transmission of results.

“Of course, each of these components has its challenges; our electoral process already has challenges. But, what we are saying is that if we want to increase the transparency and integrity of our elections, it is the way to go. As to whether the commission can overcome these challenges, answer is yes. What we intend to do is to have a modern electronic machine, then we can do electronic transmission from the polling units to the wards, to local government headquarters, to senatorial district collation centre, to states collation centres and ultimately to the national collation centre, depending on the election we are organising. Definitely, there will be challenges, but there will be continuous improvements with every election. The idea is to use this technology in smaller elections before we introduce it to the general election.”

Age of technology:

Observers believe this is the kind of development that fuels the persistent voter apathy the country has been witnessing; because people do not have confidence in the electoral system. It also sends a signal to the international community about the level of democracy in the country.

Senior Programme Manager, Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD), Austin Aigbe said the Senate seems to be living in the era of the rule of the thumb. He said: “This is very instructive because this is a time everybody is living online. Even a market woman, with her smartphone, lives online. So, we cannot be in a new age and be using old technology. Our electoral process needs to improve very quickly and the proposal to conduct electronic voting and transmission is in tandem with that reality.”

He said the Senate has committed a blunder by putting in the proposal that there will be a national register of results. He said: “So, how do you vote electronically and then you carry a hardcopy and start counting in the old way (manually). The whole idea of electronic transmission is to reduce human error. In most cases, the errors introduced at the polling units get to the national level.

“The proposal we have suggested to members of Senate, to allay their fear about hacking, is to do a two-way collation process because every vote will have a paper trail. So, when you get to the polling unit as a voter, once you click on the machine and do your voting online, you will receive a printout that will confirm the transaction you just carried out. You will carry that paper outside and drop it inside the ballot box. At the end of voting, the presiding officer will collate the softcopy and the hardcopy and make sure they agree. Once they agree, you then write the result on a result sheet and give the party agents and other officers to sign. With this backup system, if they hack the online version, it will be easy to trace it.

“Besides, we are not running online voting or internet voting, which is more exposed to hacking. So, lawmakers must understand the difference between internet voting and electronic voting. Electronic voting takes place offline. You only transmit through the internet at the end of the exercise after you have aggregated the whole transaction. The argument that internet coverage is not nationwide is very poor. The NCC lied to the lawmakers. If you go on the NCC portal, you will see that the country has internet coverage of 75 per cent in 2021. Meanwhile, it lied to the lawmakers that internet coverage is 50 per cent. MTN has released their report; its coverage is about 80.5 per cent.

E-transmission in Edo, Ondo:

“Unknown to the lawmakers, INEC has been piloting e-transmission since 2018. What it did in Edo and Ondo was to ask the presiding officers to snap the result sheet from each polling unit and upload it. So, the argument about internet coverage is a weak one. What they are angling for really is to adopt a system that will enable them to win elections at all costs; they are afraid of a free, fair and credible election. They want a system where they can change results at the collation point; if you do electronic transmission, you can no longer do that. They are afraid that it would block the possibility of what happened in Imo, where a returning officer was, at a gunpoint or under duress, made to return a candidate that did not win the election.”

Aigbe said it would be wrong to subject INEC’s decision to an NCC advisory and the approval of the National Assembly because it is the same constitution that created the National Assembly that created INEC. He added: “The constitution only the National Assembly the power to make laws for the good governance of elections. It also gives INEC power to conduct elections. The National Assembly only has the responsibility of making laws to govern the conduct of elections, but that of conducting elections rests squarely with the commission. In the case of the NCC, it is not created by the constitution, so the National Assembly cannot use what it created to usurp a constitutional authority; that’s an aberration. It is what we call usurpation of powers. INEC’s power in the constitution must be adequately respected, otherwise if states assemblies are called upon to make laws for Nigeria, how would the National Assembly feel?”

Aigbe said the National Assembly has become a rubber stamp of the executive. His words: “The 9th National Assembly has argued that it is only interested in working with the executive to make governance more impactful, but the truth remains that it has made itself a rubber stamp in the hands of the executive. For instance, if we are to call a spade a spade, the Senate goofed when it was deliberating the nomination of Madam Lauretta Onochie for the position of a National Commissioner of INEC. The lawmakers claim the only reason why they dropped Madam Onochie is because of Federal Character. We argued that Madam Onochie is a card-carrying member of the APC and the constitution forbids anyone who is partisan to occupy that type of position. What they are trying to do is to pave the way for President Muhammadu Buhari to re-nominate Madam Onochie once the tenure of Mrs. May Agbamuche-Mbu is over by December this year or so. If that happens, it would be an aberration.

9th Assembly and history:

“Another aberration is the last INEC commissioner they confirmed. Even though the majority of the lawmakers shouted nay, the Senate president used his gavel and said the ayes have it. It is clear that the National Assembly is no longer representing the interests of the Nigerian people. All the laws they are portraying as legacy decisions, such as the Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB) and the Electoral Act are already in question. Until they give us a peoples’ legislation, we would continue to call them out; the PIB is supposed to be a peoples’ legislation and the Electoral Act is also supposed to be a peoples’ legislation. If they don’t conform to the wishes of the people, as expressed during the public hearings over these matters, the 9th National Assembly would go down in history as a rubber stamp parliament.”