Come February 25, 2023, Nigeria, Africa’s largest democracy will uphold her democratic ideals through the general election process and in this case would be carried out through electronic and biometric means known as the Bimodal Voter Accreditation System (BVAS) using biometrics and face recognition to authenticate voters. Activities surrounding this general election would go a long way towards demonstrating the democratic tenet of Nigeria practices which is a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. So, the development of this technology which aims to ensure a free, fair, and credible electoral process continues to encourage the teaming population but can this technology about to be deployed for the elections live up to the expectations of Nigerians and bury the age-long rigging and malpractices that has always characterized the country’s electoral process at all levels of governance?
The Bimodal Voter Accreditation System (BVAS), according to the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) is an electronic device designed to read the Permanent Voters Card (PVC) details including the voter’s surname and thereafter authenticating voters – using the voter’s fingerprints or photo to prove that they are eligible to vote at a particular polling unit. Therefore, the election follows three major steps to ensure that voters successfully cast their votes and summarized thus; Verification, authentication and casting of votes. The process is further explained below:
1. Verification involves either scanning the barcode/QR code on the PVC/Voter’s register or entering the last six digits of the Voter’s Identity Number or typing in the last name of the voter by the Officer in charge to verify and authenticate the voter.
2. Authentication of voters where the officer requests the voter to place the appropriate finger on the spot provided on the BVAS. During this step, if the fingerprint match fails, an officer in charge captures the voter’s photo for authentication.
3. The casting of votes for preferred candidates.
The BVAS machine uses electronic means to call up records of voters to confirm their polling unit, authenticate the voters and also live-transmit the record of a user that successfully completed his/her vote casting. It needs a steady source of internet connection for stability and a hitch-free process preferably run on a 4G network to enable it to call up records of intending voters and ensure a successful voting process. But given the level of technological development in Nigeria, the use of the BVAS in Nigeria is a very contentious issue since some of the facilities required to be put in place for a successful electronic live accreditation process haven’t been put in place.
First, locations with very poor internet access (Please take a look at this video) would suffer lots of void votes as a result of the numerous incident reports that would be documented given internet instability in remote areas of Nigeria. A study carried out by B.M Kuboye in 2017 which evaluated network performance in Nigeria indicated that broadband networks in Nigeria are still developing and need a lot of improvements. Therefore, the government and the service providers must work hand-in-hand to fast-track the full operation of broadband network services in Nigeria and the failure to do this will continue to delay the gains of Information Technology to the economic growth of Nigeria which includes delay in fully going live and electronic during general elections. This poses a big challenge to the electronic election process since its backbone rests on internet connectivity and general network performance.
Criticizing BVAS adopted process further using available records online where the average time taken to validate and authenticate voters are seen to be in excess of four minutes, several questions come to mind including;
– Are there alternative means to authenticate these voters in case of system failure? This is because a prospective voter can turn up to the venue with a bleached thumb or index fingerprints or even amputated arms. Also, given the stability of the internet network, the hardware might find it difficult to call up stored data of voters. Are there alternative methods if this authentication process becomes impossible given our present situation?
– The battery power and life of this electronic device would be another area of concern. How does the commission provide an alternative source of power? Given the attention of the citizens especially the youths clamouring for this election, it is expected that the forthcoming election will record a massive turnout of voters that would make elections run into the night. What are the provisions in each polling unit in case the battery life of the BVAS gets exhausted?
– Many insecurities are linked to devices that live transmit records to a server, such as the admin passwords. Hence, there is a risk that commercial voting hardware results could be meddled with by institutions providing and managing the machine and elections. There is no guarantee that records are collected and reported accurately. So, group password protection could serve as a good practice to ensure that not one person has access to the system alone else what is the commission’s position on this?
– Since this BVAS live transmits, how is it protected from signal jammers? A signal jammer is a device that blocks radio frequencies and disrupts communication between equipment and server base preventing them from receiving and transmitting signals. It disrupts signals such as 2G, 3G, 4G, wi-fi, radio waves, etc. Though this is illegal to handle especially when used without a license, it is an area of concern. Signal jammers can be positioned from anywhere between 1-100 meters around network devices to alter the electronic transmission of records. Given that the BVAS works electronically, this poses a threat to the system and there would be a need to adopt a means to check this type of coordinated cyber signal attack.
– Finally, are there hotlines to contact in case of continuous downtime of this electronic device provided by the commission to voters?
Having technically managed full biometric electronic elections twice now that involved more than 40,000 students in the University of Nigeria, I am deeply worried about the ability of INEC to provide actionable solutions to the myriad of issues and questions surrounding the use of BVAS for the election.
However, I understand the excitement and optimism of many Nigerians who believe that the electronic system will put an end to many years of underage voting, ballot box snatching, overvoting, and other forms of electoral fraud that technology would bury. But we must not be over-excited as the recent case in Osun State where the court stated that there was over-voting in some local government areas despite the use of the BVAS validates some of the doubts about the efficiency of the electronic voting system. Although there is a possibility that the court was wrong, this would be further clarified in the subsequent and expected judgements from the Appeal and Supreme Courts.
Possible solutions to the drawbacks itemized above might be expensive to the commission but would help in further upholding the reputation of the Independent national electoral commission.
1. It includes getting toll-free numbers so that voters can live report possible incidences and difficulties in every polling unit. Also, the commission should make provision for foot soldiers that could ‘technically’ assist and manage possible challenges that may arise on election day.
2. Expect possible cyber-attacks on the live transmission of records on election days. In the case of possible jammers, a way out would be to forbid bags, cars and containers that could contain jamming systems from gaining access to polling units. Verification and Accreditation areas should be inspected and secured at least within a distance of 200 meters
3. Alternative manual means of verification and accreditation should be made available in case the BVAS fails due to Internet network instability, hardware malfunction, theft, etc.
4. Adequate training of officers and personnel to be deployed to the field to ensure a hitch-free process.
While we keep our fingers crossed ahead of the elections just a few weeks away, we continue to hope that the introduction of the BVAS gives us a hitch-free electoral process this coming election.
**Nnamdi C. Igwe is an Engineer and a Lecturer in Mechatronics Engineering, University of Nigeria and a public affairs analyst.
Comments expressed here do not reflect the opinions of Vantage News Nigeria or any employee thereof.