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Did biometric systems fail Nigeria’s democracy?

It remains unclear as to how a system designed to increase confidence in the results of its presidental elections did the exact opposite.

By Greg Noone

A couple of weeks before Nigeria consulted its 93 million registered voters on who should become its next president, Yemi Adamolekun was invited to view a mock voter accreditation rehearsal at a polling unit in downtown Lagos. The founder of Enough Is Enough (EIE), a civic organisation founded to promote better governance and educate young Nigerians about their democratic rights, Adamolekun was briefed on how the national election commission intended to use its in-house biometric system to authenticate voters’ identity using thumbprint and facial recognition and, after the ballots had been counted, publish the final vote tally online.

Named the Bimodal Voter Accreditation System (BVAS), the equipment had already been used in several local and regional elections. The upcoming presidential elections, however, would be the first time that the system would be deployed at any kind of scale. While Adamolekun and her colleagues at EIE knew that it would have to brief citizens on the fact that they wouldn’t be able to vote if the system couldn’t authenticate them, it seemed like BVAS would just be another mundane technological upgrade to Nigeria’s electoral infrastructure. But looking back now with the benefit of hindsight, she says, “I don’t think the technology was the problem.”

Rather, Adamolekun argues, something clearly went wrong in how officials chose to use the system. Instead of publishing all the results from Nigeria’s 176,000 polling stations on the night of 25 February as promised, the picture of the overall tally on the website of Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) remained only partial. Nigerians awoke the next morning to an electoral system in chaos, leading to criticism of INEC from international observers that the election had been poorly run and accusations from the opposition that it had been rigged in favour of the incumbent All Progressives Congress (APC) party.

INEC has since apologised for the technical glitches it experienced on election night and has been forced to delay upcoming gubernatorial elections by a week amid a flurry of legal disputes arising from its use of BVAS at polling stations (the commission did not respond to a request for comment from Tech Monitor.) The debacle hasn’t just knocked confidence in Nigeria’s democracy, but also cast a pall over efforts to better secure the country’s elections through the use of biometric authentication technologies. Rather than becoming an instrument for strengthening Nigerian democracy, some fear systems like BVAS instead threaten to become new tools for the perpetuation of electoral fraud. It’s little wonder, then, says Nnenna Ifeanyi-Ajufo, a law professor at Buckinghamshire New University and an expert in cybersecurity in Africa, that “there will be so many people going to court after this election because of the biometric system.”

An election official using BVAS to accredit a voter in Idiko Ile, Nigeria, during the country’s presidential elections in February. The system, used successfully in other local and regional elections, is now at the centre of several lawsuits mounted by opposition parties against the ruling government, which they accuse of rigging February’s contest. (Photo by Gregade/Shutterstock)

Nigeria’s biometric election

A month before Adamolekun attended the mock accreditation exercise in Lagos, INEC mounted a different charm offensive – this time in London. Invited to speak to assembled delegates at Chatham House, the commission’s chairman, Professor Mahmoud Yakubu, enraptured his audience with an explanation of just how prepared the organisation was for Nigeria’s imminent presidential poll. Sitting in the back of the hall, Yakubu impressed Dr Leena Hoffmann-Atar as confident, knowledgeable – even steely. “I think all of us were surprised that we enjoyed a speech on election management the way we all did,” recalls the associate fellow of Chatham House’s Africa Programme.

Actual details on the training and logistics involved in grafting BVAS onto Nigeria’s electoral infrastructure, however, were sparse. “A number of people raised concerns about… the capacity of the commission to scale-up this technology” from handling local and regional elections, says Hoffmann-Atar, as well as INEC’s ability to reliably secure voters’ personal data in a country where the legal obligations for doing so remain vague. Ultimately, explains the analyst, “Those concerns were always brushed aside.”

Again, there didn’t seem to be too much cause for alarm in the weeks preceding the elections. Biometric verification has been embraced across Africa, with nations including Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya and Ghana all using the technology, with varying levels of success, to shore up the principle of one person, one vote in their own democratic systems. That’s been complemented by a continent-wide push for digital ID systems, including in Malawi, where its National Registration and Identification System has been described as leading to huge savings in the provision of services, and Cameroon, where a program to issue biometric cards to refugees has allowed them access to education, health services, and mobile phone subscriptions.

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Nigeria, too, had embraced biometric verification with the launch of its own Personal Voter Card program in 2014. The implementation of the Electoral Amendment Act in February 2022 subsequently called on INEC to streamline voter authentication at polling places, while giving the commission carte blanche to implement technological upgrades to make that happen. This was how BVAS entered the public consciousness in Nigeria, as a system INEC claimed would streamline verification and allow for results to be published faster than ever before.

“That instant delivery of the outcome was central to a lot of the public confidence that was shown leading up to this election,” says Hoffmann-Atar. There were already signs, though, that such results were still disputable. When the incumbent governor of Osun state was toppled from his post during an election last July, he challenged the result in court, arguing that BVAS had been used to generate two contradictory results (a decision on that case has yet to be published).

“That was the beginning of apprehension about the biometric system,” says Ifeanyi-Ajufo. Then came February’s national elections. It quickly became clear on the day that many polling officials had not anticipated how long it would take to authenticate voters using BVAS, leading to delays that effectively disenfranchised citizens who arrived late in the day to cast their ballots. Others complained of individuals failing authentication, but voting anyway.

More alarmingly, the transmission of regional counts for the presidential race were published later than those for house and senate races – a development many found suspect after such a competitive three-way contest between the incumbent All Progressives Congress, the People’s Democratic Party, and an insurgent Labor Party. “Anyone who’s followed elections in Nigeria knows the counting and the collation of the results is the black box… where all the rigging takes place,” says Hoffmann-Atar. “Lots of rigging happens before, but those numbers, when they start going up the chain of custody is when they [are] manipulated.”

A voter at a polling station in Abuja during February’s elections. While Nigeria’s election officials have been criticised for their failure to use BVAS to publicise results from individual polling sites in a timely fashion, the system seems to have performed well in its core role of verifying voters’ identities. (Photo by Abidemi Ajibodu / Shutterstock)

Learning from mistakes

The failure to use BVAS to break open that black box is one that both Hoffmann-Atar and Ifeanyi-Ajufo find shocking – not only because INEC had assured the public time and time again that there was little chance of the system being compromised, but also because Nigeria is, by many definitions, an extremely tech-savvy nation. While reliable internet access throughout the country remains patchy, ordinary Nigerians still navigate online services and a cornucopia of fintech products with relative ease. That INEC couldn’t achieve something similar for Nigeria’s elections is bound to impact on public confidence in the use of technology to secure polls in the future, says Hoffmann-Atar.

What’s more, there were about a dozen recent examples of best practices in the use of biometric technology in elections from nations across Africa. Kenya is one such case, explains Hoffmann-Atar. That country “learned some serious lessons from its 2017 elections,” she says, not least in designating its election systems as critical national infrastructure – something, she says, that Nigeria’s government noticeably failed to do ahead of its recent presidential contest. But international organisations also need to push for much greater transparency in the use of technology to secure elections across the continent – an argument that she would like to see being made with more force in the African Union and the Commonwealth.

There’s also a persistent assumption among Nigeria’s civil institutions, argues Ifeanyi-Ajufo, that they can easily pull off large-scale technological changes overnight in a country facing systemic problems with corruption, internet coverage and accessibility to the national electrical grid. That sense of overconfidence, argues Ifeanyi-Ajufo, has resulted in botched rollouts of key reforms time and again, evidenced most recently in the government’s attempt to rid the nation of paper banknotes. “We do not prepare adequately,” she says. “We just want to leapfrog.”

In the meantime, Nigeria’s citizens have been left asking themselves about the extent to which they can trust their institutions – a perennial question, to be sure, in a nation that’s fought so hard to make democracy work since independence, but one that many think should have started to have been answered with the introduction of technology designed to protect the voting process. Ironically, BVAS appears to have succeeded, for the most part, in verifying the identities of citizens at over 80% of polling places, significantly reducing the influence of phantom voters in the final tallies. The failures likely occurred elsewhere, argues Adamolekun – failures that, for many, appear to have been wilful, absent a detailed explanation of what exactly happened from INEC.

“The big challenge is the election management body has had horrible comms,” she says. “They were horrible before, they were horrible during elections, and they’ve been horrible post. Nature abhors a vacuum, and when people don’t have information, they make things up, based on perceptions, their own beliefs, their own biases – and the election management body continues to leave room for people to make things up.”

Eventually, the truth will out, says Adamolekun, probably via the many lawsuits mounted by opposition parties currently working their way through the Nigerian legal system. The judgements that result should, the activist hopes, lead to a fuller picture of what occurred on election night. “Then,” says Adamolekun, “we’ll know exactly what happened.”

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