Nigerian election successful despite biometric voting hiccups

April 7, 2015 - 

Last week’s presidential election in Nigeria represented the first peaceful, fully democratic transition of power and has been labelled the “cleanest vote ever” in the country’s post-colonial history.

Opposition candidate Major-General Muhammadu Buhari won the presidential election by more than 2.5 million votes, in the most expensive election ever to be held on the African continent, costing more than US$200 million. Buhari is a former military ruler of Nigeria who was deposed in a coup in the mid-1980. He is a Muslim and a tough, septuagenarian disciplinarian who survived an apparent Boko Haram assassination attempt, and whose supporters see him as incorruptible, despite his poor human rights record when he was in power.

Buhari triumphed over Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian from the Ijaw ethnic group and leader of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), who previously won by cementing his support in Nigeria’s hugely popular Pentecostal community in the south of the country. Jonathan was trounced at the polls because he lost internal support from his party, who accused him of failing to deal with the many problems facing the country, including the Islamist “Boko Haram” insurgency, kidnapping, piracy, corruption and rampant oil theft. He lost so much support that a powerful faction of his own party, which included state governors and parliamentarians defected to Buhari’s opposition All Progressives Congress (APC) party.

In light of this development, Jonathan stunned the county by conceding the election. Jonathan called Buhari to congratulate him, which confused and confounded critics who thought he would not acquiesce power. “I thank all Nigerians once again for the great opportunity I was given to lead this country and assure you that I will continue to do my best at the helm of national affairs until the end of my tenure,” he said. “As I have always affirmed, nobody’s ambition is worth the blood of any Nigerian. The unity, stability and progress of our dear country is more important than anything else.”

Jonathan asked for calm as the Independent National Electoral Commission still continues to tally the polls, but all indications show Buhari, now President-elect, won an overwhelming majority of votes after a disjointed election process that was plagued by technical issues.

As BiometricUpdate.com reported, the election was actually postponed by six weeks, due to the poor distribution of permanent voter cards to the country’s 65 million voters, and was extended to March 29 due to delays and technical problems with biometric voter card readers.

Many of the fingerprint identification readers that the election commission were using to validate voter ID cards failed to work. The electoral commission’s card reader is a portable electronic voter authentication device, configured to only read officially issued permanent voter cards. The devices were primarily designed for the accreditation process, in order to authenticate eligible voters before voting.

Jonathan and at least three governors from his ruling party were among the voters who were unable to electronically validate their identities using the machines, forcing officials to resort to manual verification. The problems with the machines were likely attributable to two factors. Firstly, the machines, though dependable in terms of security, were not subjected to lengthy field trials. Also critics believe that the effectiveness of the device may have been impaired through its “epileptic” power supply, which may indicate that the batteries were inadequate because they were not able to last the projected 12 hours they were suppose to while in continual usage in the field.

The machines were also configured to only read the voter ID cards of a particular polling unit and could only work on election day. While these are reasonable security measures, these characteristics also created onerous logistical challenges. Despite these problems surrounding its first deployment of biometric voting technology, Nigeria was still, to its credit, able to conduct its most successful election.

Notably, the use of biometric technologies aided in the creation of an atmosphere of lawfulness, civility and order which contributed to the first relatively safe and successful election in the nation’s history. This episode, however, is also a continuing indication that more field testing must be conducted by African election commissions before attempting to debut biometric voting systems.

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About Rawlson King

Rawlson O’Neil King is a contributing editor at BiometricUpdate.com and is an experienced communications professional, management consultant, trade journalist and author who recently published a book about control and electronic networks and who has written numerous articles in trade publications and academic journals about smart home and building technologies. Follow him @rawlsonking2.