The recently passed amendment of the 2010 Electoral Act (as amended) has opened yet another vista of debates on the possibility of having a free, fair and credible elections in 2023.
Since 1999 when Nigeria returned to democratic government, elections had been marred with various degrees of malpractice, creating the need to strengthen the Electoral law to guarantee more credible elections.
To this end, the independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) in 2015 introduced the use of electronic devices by deploying the electronic card readers to capture a database of voters. Although, the use of card reader has not been listed as part of Nigeria’s electoral laws, INEC and civil society organisations made recommendations to the National Assembly, to amend the Electoral Act to allow the use of card readers and also transfer of election results directly from the polling units to a central server managed by INEC.
The 8th Assembly in 2018 passed an amendment bill and sent it to President Muhammadu Buhari three consecutive times.
Sequel to this, the current National Assembly upon its inauguration in June 2019 promised to pass the amendment bill and present it to the president in good time, so as to ensure a better electioneering process come 2023 general elections.
The joint committee of the Senate and House after several engagements with stakeholders submitted their reports for consideration and the two chambers passed the amendment bill but not without controversy and drama.
In the Senate, it was resolved that INEC may consider the electronic transmission of results provided there is national coverage as adjudged by the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) and approved by the National Assembly.
Following the confusion that erupted during plenary when there was disagreement earlier on the move to remove the recommendation of the committee, the Senate minority leader, Senator Enyinnaya Abaribe, PDP, Abia South raised a point of Order (Order 73) for division so that Nigerians would know who voted against the electronic transmission of results.
Fifty-two senators voted to support it, 28 senators voted for the clause which empowers INEC to transmit results of elections by electronic means where and when practicable as contained in the report under consideration. Twenty-eight senators were absent.
With the voting pattern, the Senate decision conflicts with section 78 of the Constitution, subjecting INEC discretion on the matter to the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) to decide whether or not election results can be transmitted through electronic means and the National Assembly which is to approve the recommendation of NCC.
In the House of Representatives the clause which provides that INEC shall determine the mode of voting/transmission of election results was left intact after attempts made by some members between Thursday and Friday to amend it failed.
The retained Clause 52 (2) reads, “Voting at election and transmission of results in this Bill shall be in accordance with the procedure determined by the commission”
The clause generated serious disagreement among members, following which the Speaker, Femi Gbajabiamila, invited the NCC to address the House on whether the country had attained the capacity to seamlessly transmit election results from across the 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT, using available telecommunications services.
NCC’s director of Technical Services, Malam Ubale Maska, told the lawmakers that only 50.3 percent of the 190,000 polling units in the country were covered by 2G and 3G networks.
He claimed that the remaining 49.7 percent was without network coverage and that only a 3G network could adequately transmit results.
Maska further admitted that the INEC server was susceptible to manipulation by hackers. The INEC chairman, Mahmood Yakubu, failed to appear before the House.
The House, upon receiving the briefing by the officials, resumed consideration of the bill but insisted on its decision to retain the original provision empowering INEC to determine the mode of voting and transmission of election results.
The bill was, however, passed after PDP members walked out. It is expected that both chambers will constitute a conference committee to harmonise grey areas before sending the bill to President Buhari for assent.
Interestingly, INEC, despite the controversy, has hinted that it is working on procuring at least 200,000 electronic voting machines.
The commission said it is dealing with four components of the Electronic Voting System (EVS): Electronic Voter Register (EVR), Electronic Voting Machine (EVM), Electronic Voter Authentication (EVA) and Electronic Transmission of Results (ETR).
Speaking exclusively with LEADERSHIP in Abuja, INEC’s national commissioner for information and voter education, Festus Okoye, said the commission had invited 49 companies for a Request for Information (RFI) demonstration and that it was yet to shortlist any company for the purposes of supplying any of the machines.
Okoye said, “The commission is working on the estimates for these machines and we are working at procuring at least 200,000.’’
He noted that the commission had been uploading Polling Unit Results with its Smart Card Readers, the Z-pad and other electronic solutions.
The commission, however, dispelled insinuations about its ability to transmit election results electronically in 2023.
The commission said it has the capacity for electronic transmission of results from remote areas of the country.
“We have uploaded results from very remote areas, even from areas where you have to use human carriers to access,” INEC’s National Chairman and Commissioner for Information and Voter Education, Okoye said.
“So, we have made our own position very clear, that we have the capacity and we have the will to deepen the use of technology in the electoral process.”
He emphasised that INEC would be guided by the power granted it by the constitution and the law.
“Our powers are given by the constitution and the law, and we will continue to remain within the ambit and confines of the power granted to the commission by the constitution and the law,” he stressed.
Immediate past national chairman of INEC, Prof. Attahiru Jega, lampooned members of National Assembly over their alleged attempt to undermine electoral integrity by whittling down the powers of the election management body and subjecting its decision to NCC, a body under the Presidency, said it was a crazy and senseless decision.
National chairman of PDP, Prince Uche Secondus, said his party would take legal action to address the passage of the electoral bill which he described as a scam.
Secondus also called on President Muhammadu Buhari to save democracy in Nigeria by not signing the bill into law.
The PDP caucus in the House of Representatives took the matter a notch when it called for immediate arrest of the executive commissioner (Technical Services) of NCC, Ubale Maska, and his team for lying under oath on the matter.
Chairman of the PDP caucus, Kingsley Chinda in a statement noted that details on the NCC website and information on the website of telecommunication companies were contrary to Maska’s claim.
According to the statement, Maska and his team cleverly sought to rely on 2018 data in 2021, when they knew or ought to know that internet penetration had advanced substantially in Nigeria since 2018.
Clearly the last is not heard about this Bill as both chambers move to constitute a conference committee to harmonise grey areas before sending the bill to President Buhari for assent. All eyes are on the president over what he would make of the proposed law and the controversy it has generated so far.