Will INEC Pass The Acid Test Come March 28?

 

By Maryam Cam

Following the postponement of the general elections, questions about INEC’s commitment to free, fair and credible elections have been raised. Skeptics have wondered if INEC is capable of effective election management and delivery. This is because, there are shadows surrounding the new innovations that have been introduced into the electoral process. People know that it will no longer be business as usual. But many are unsure of how the elections will be conducted. Will the permanent voters card be sufficient in curbing electoral malpractice? Given that the PVCs are smart Cards and will require the use of a card reader, what assurances are there that this system will be fully functional?  Will this system not be compromised?  These and many other questions continually plague the mind of Nigerians as we approach the polls. For INEC, March 28, 2015 will be a test of its capacity to deliver a free and fair election. But will INEC pass the test?
 

In a bid to clear the doubts in the mind of the public, the resident electoral commissioner of Akwa Ibom state, Mr Austin Okojie while speaking to journalists and civil society organizations in Uyo, assured Nigerians of INEC’s commitment to effective election management and delivery. He reiterated that the new electoral process is foolproof to malpractice. Therefore, the fears expressed are unfounded. He went further to clarify misgivings about the modified electoral process and security structures imbedded in the new design.
 

Amongst the new innovations introduced into the electoral process is the permanent voters’ card also known as PVC. This is a smart card used for voter identification. It stores a voter’s bio data, biometric and facial image. Information on this card will be accessed using a card reader and verified before a voter can be allowed to vote.
 

Another is the specialized card reader. This is an android based electronic device that has a secure access memory.  Its use is to verify the authenticity of PVCs and also accredit eligible voters. Not long ago, reports in the social media suggested that PVCs were being collected and counterfeited. INEC, in its foresight had envisioned these problems and incorporated a mode of verifying the authenticity of a card.
 

When a voter presents a PVC at a polling unit, it will be verified using a card reader. If the card is the original card provided by INEC, the card reader will display all the voters’ information as stored in INEC’s database. On the contrary, if a cloned card is presented, the card reader will be denied access to the voter’s information because the card is not recognized by INEC’s software. This phase is known as verification. It is to be done before accreditation of voters. This is a security phase that helps to prevent the use of counterfeit or “fake” cards.  It is also to verify that the intending voter is the owner of the card presented.
The next phase is accreditation. This is done alongside verification from 8am to 1pm. All registered voters are expected to be at their respective polling units within the time frame for accreditation.  Every duly registered voter can only exercise his voting right at one specific polling unit, that is, the polling unit where he was registered. Accreditation therefore, involves making sure that this law is adhered to. In order to successfully enforce this law, each card reader has been configured to a specific polling unit. This means that although a card has been verified as authentic, a voter may not be allowed to vote except he goes to the polling unit where he was registered. This is to prevent multiple voting and electoral fraud.
 

The use of card reader for accreditation is not just for verifying the authenticity of PVCs, it also serves other purposes. The search button,  for instance, allows an electoral officer to check if a particular PVC has been accredited before. This helps prevent multiple voting. There is also a special data collation feature which stores number of cards that has been verified. This feature also automatically sends this record to the central database of INEC thereby providing baseline on actual number of voters accredited per unit. This baseline will be used to compare results in order to forestall falsification of election results.
 

The idea of curbing electoral malpractice using the card reader and PVC is laudable but given the Nigerian factor that seems to turn models of success in other political climes into failures or at best mediocre,  the question now is, is this strategy enough to guarantee free,  fair and credible elections? For example, there is the question of inconsistent power supply. The card readers, being electronic devices, will require alternative power supply when their battery has run down. What measures have been put in place to cater for such exigencies? There is also the problem of logistics, specifically the late arrival or in some cases, election materials do not arrive at designated centers. How sure are we that there will not be a repeat of such incidents?
 

Mr. Okojie, in response to the issues raised, stated that INEC had plans in place to combat these problems should they arise. On the issue of battery life of card readers, he stated that each device has a battery life of twelve hours. This, he insisted, was more than enough to sustain the device throughout the time allotted for accreditation which is just eight hours He also added that each polling unit will also be provided with extra card readers as a backup plan in the case of any eventuality.
 

On the issue of logistics, he assured Nigerians that in this election, electoral materials will arrive at least twelve hours before polling time. He went further to explain that electoral materials are polling specific and materials designated for a polling unit cannot be used elsewhere. So the days of hijacking of materials and ballot box snatching are over. Even in the eventuality that an election is canceled or postponed; provisions have been made for accounting for such anormally using for Form EC 40G series.
Citing the Osun and Ekiti state elections which were adjudged free and fair, Mr Austin Okojie emphasized INEC’s preparedness to conduct an election that will reflect the will of the people.
It is apparent that INEC has done its homework.  Like a very good student, it has learnt from the past and has incorporated these lessons in its plan. But strategies are in themselves nothing if they cannot be effectively implemented. March 28, 2015 will be the first time INEC will be testing its new improved strategy on a large scale. What happens that day is very crucial to Nigeria’s future. This is truly an acid test for INEC.  The question is, will INEC pass the acid test?

 

• Maryam Cam is the program officer of African Women for Peace and Development. She writes from Benin City.