In an unprecedented legislative manoeuvre, the electoral act was, this week, passed by both chambers of Nigeria’s National Assembly.
Its passage was not without drama, chaos and what looked like well-choreographed political trickery.
The most contentious clause in the bill which pitched the lawmakers, most of whom voted along party lines, against one another was section 52(3).
The section states that “the commission may transmit results of elections by electronic means where and when practicable.”
However, lawmakers of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) were opposed to the provision and many of them voted against the clause.
The Senate Deputy Whip, Sabi Abdullahi, took the lead for his caucus, when he moved that the section be amended, one that was challenged by the opposition caucuses.
“The commission may consider electronic transmission provided the national network coverage is adjudged to be adequate and secure by the Nigerian Communications Commission and approved by the National Assembly,” his proposition read.
When Mr Abdullahi’s position was put to vote, 52 senators voted in favour while 28 voted against, with 28 absentees, exclusive of the Senate President.
After Thursday’s adjournment because the session turned rowdy, the House of Representatives passed the bill in spite of a walkout staged by lawmakers of the People’s Democratic Party.
As it stands, it effectively means the electoral commission (INEC) has been denied the legal power to transmit results of elections electronically.
Much to the consternation of the main opposition PDP and many election monitoring groups, the lawmakers empowered the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) and the National Assembly to determine the use of electronic transmission in an election.
It thus means that federal lawmakers have successfully unbundled the roles of INEC into four agencies.
The commission’s only job now is to conduct election. The NCC would suggest e-transmission of results, while the National Assembly would ratify the suggestion. Already, an electoral offences commission bill is still receiving legislative tending.
Ceding the power to determine the use of electronic transmission in an election to political office holders and politicians opens another can of uncertainties, analysts believe.
The Nigerian Communications Commission is an agency under the ministry of communications and digital economy and the appointment of its director-general is under the purview of the president.
By implication, the agency’s director-general works on the mandate of the president as well as the minister of communications. Such officials seldom go against the wish of the president who can thus decide whether or not Nigerians should experience electronic transmission of election results.
Analysts say INEC’s dependence on such agency to take a decision that grossly affects an election undermines the electoral body’s independence.
Already, questions have been raised about INEC’s independence and there have been concerted advocacy to make the commission more independent.
The voting pattern during the deliberation about the bill shows that a bulk of federal lawmakers are opposed to the digitisation of the electoral process.
What the intrigues that culminated into the passage of the bill, particularly among APC lawmakers, suggest is that they have vested interest in a non-digitized voting process.
For one, the statutory chairman of the committee of the whole, Deputy Speaker Idris Wase (APC, Plateau), did not hide his opposition to the clause so much that some lawmakers accused him of rigging the process, an allegation he denied.
He argued that those without network coverage would be disenfranchised.
“I make bold to say that only less than 20 per cent of my constituency has network coverage,” he said at the plenary on Thursday.
“What happens to our brothers in Maiduguri, Yobe where masts are down,” he added, amid interruptions from his colleagues.
An alternative amendment by James Faleke (APC, Lagos) suggested that the section cater to the two sides of the divide by providing that “election results may be transmitted both electronically and manually.”
His suggestion fell flat.
A representative of the NCC, Adeleke Adewolu, would tell the House members that only about “50.3 per cent of polling stations in Nigeria have facilities for transmission of results.”
He added that only about 50 per cent of polling units in the country have a 3G network that can transmit election results electronically.
Meanwhile, in NCC’s draft consultation document for the deployment of 5G mobile technology in the country, as of December 2019, the coverage data of rural areas shows that 2G networks has coverage of 89.8 per cent, while 3G has coverage of over 74 per cent, much more than the figure Mr Adewolu told lawmakers.
The latest 4G network has reached about 37 per cent of the population of the country covered at the same time, with less than 10 per cent connections leading to mobile Internet penetration of about 32 per cent. Major telecommunication networks in the country have also reported a yearly uptick in their 4G reach.
Lawmakers Can Stall Implementation
Meanwhile, the lawmakers have a habit of stalling legislative duties they are required to sanction before such could be implemented.
Paragraph 3 of the third schedule of the Nigerian constitution empowers the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) to retain in its custody details of assets declared by public office holders and make them available for inspection upon request by any citizen of Nigeria, on the terms and conditions prescribed by the National Assembly.
Repeated calls by Nigerians demanding the CCB to publicise the asset details of President Muhammadu Buhari and Vice President Yemi Osinbajo have been turned down, according to the bureau’s chairman, Mohammed Isah, because “the National Assembly has not set the guidelines for the Bureau to do so.”
It is unclear if the electoral act provision would be treated differently, but the lawmakers’ disposition towards the election digitisation clause does not instil much optimism.
Yet those who oppose online electronic systems have cited possibility of hacking as one of their fears. Some federal lawmakers also nurse this fear.
In response to those in this camp, one of Africa’s foremost think-tanks, CDD-West Africa, said that “the benefits to transmitting results electronically are significant and that there are ways to protect the system and integrity of the outcomes.”
“CDD-West Africa sees benefits in an electronic system that can both record votes digitally and produce an instantaneous paper record of each vote (a digital receipt and ballot paper showing only the party voted for) to be received by the voter and inserted in a secure box for later cross-referencing with the electronically transmitted results. A valid result, therefore, will be one where the digital and paper records correspond,” it added.
“CDD-West Africa’s strong preference for fully digitising the process is based on the well-documented and chaotic nature of the current manual results collation and tabulation system.”
Another monitoring group, YIAGA Africa, said the digitized voting process was a no-brainer because the traditional manual means “has increasingly become susceptible to manipulation, fraudulent (and)… wrong computation of results, violence and attacks on election officials.”
It added that INEC has shown its capacity to deploy technology in transmitting results from the polling units level alongside the manual collation of results during the Edo and Ondo 2020 governorship election.
Although the electoral body did it without having a specific legal pass, the group said the successes recorded during the last elections were pointers to what INEC could do if backed by the law, without any third party’s interference.
(This report is a partnership between Premium Times and the Centre for Democracy and Development focused on strengthening Nigeria’s electoral system).