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INEC’s flop spurs tech industry into action

On March 5, 2023, two web applications from Nigeria were announced on Twitter. They were built by a group of tech and media companies and individuals, with the aim of recovering missing or stolen votes and reducing the chance of such incidents happening again.

Eligible Nigerian voters in many states will head out on March 18 to elect their next governors and members of state Houses of Assembly. For many people, the outcome of the elections is critical and would show whether the country learnt anything from the presidential and National Assembly polls conducted on February 25.

The outcome of the hotly contested presidential election has been described by many analysts and observers as lacking transparency and characterised by vote stealing. Vote stealing is a situation in which agents of parties forcefully take election result sheets and manipulate the original numbers. Some incidents of vote stealing were recorded across several states including Lagos, Rivers, Akwa Ibom and Gombe.

The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) has admitted there were flaws in the election, saying it would punish erring officials who colluded with party officials to compromise the outcome of the polls.

The electoral umpire also had to shift the governorship and state House of Assembly elections after the Appeal Court granted its appeal to reconfigure the Bimodal Voter Accreditation System (BVAS) machines but only after it has ensured the data are stored on a different server that is accessible to the political parties contesting the outcome of the last election. But for many people, especially in the tech industry, this is not enough guarantee eligible votes will count in the upcoming elections.

The memories of the irregularities from the February 25 elections are still very fresh for some tech founders and workers; hence it is not enough to sit, wait and wish the electoral umpire will do the right thing.

Many of these founders and professionals are taking action by actively voting or just doing what they know best: building innovations. The goal is to counter rigging.

Jiro Ejobe, managing director of VIISAUS Technology Limited, highlighted the growing interest from the tech industry in the 2023 general election, which he described as Nigeria’s most technically enabled and technically advanced polls.

“It means that people who were excluded from interrogating the process before are for the first time able to interface with the process without having to speak to individuals; they can use technology,” Ejobe said. “We know of several organisations, including our own, which had set up centres to download polling unit results and do collation alongside INEC. Just the ability to do that and to be able to test the efficacy of the process while it was happening was very attractive to tech professionals, local and international. We expect that to continue and we think it’s a good thing because it adds to the integrity, at least the observability of the process.”

One of the platforms, electionwatchng.com, was built by Enough is Enough (EiE), a non-profit; BudgIT; CJID (Premium Times), and Dataphyte as a parallel INEC Result Viewing portal (IReV) for the upcoming March 18 governorship and House of Assembly elections. The portal allows citizens to upload their signed copies of their polling unit result sheets to compare them to IReV uploads, which can then be used to determine if the results announced were accurate and compliant with INEC’s regulations.

“But that’s not all – we’re also collecting data from the last presidential and NASS election,” the coalition said. However, the platform became necessary because, according to the group, INEC promised that polling unit-level results will be uploaded on its IReV portal and the results captured will be used for collation. Instead, the commission went back on its promise and there were cases where altered result sheets were used to declare results.

Another platform, forensic.nigeria2.com, built by five tech workers led by Mark Essien, founder of Hotels.ng, is a website where voters can upload the results as well as the pictures they took with their mobile devices. Its functionalities are similar to electionwatchng.com.

“Spent over 30 minutes on this forensic.nigeria2.com verifying results,” said Abiodun Thorpe, a tech policy consultant. “I really do hope these verification and results get admitted in the court. Kudos to Mark Essien. Nigeria must be good in my lifetime.”

Ejobe’s company VIISAUS has also collaborated with BudgIT, Stears, EiE and Dataphyte, among others, to build ARVO, a platform that is used to track incidents that occurred during the elections. The company is also part of the collaborators behind electionwatchng.com and other initiatives aimed at delivering a credible election.

“We have a program called Uncommon Sense that enlightens citizens about their rights, responsibilities, and duties as citizens. One of the key rights and responsibilities we emphasise is participation in the electoral process. The more the citizens participate, the less likely it is for votes, as you say, to get ‘stolen.’” he said.

It is a new wave of citizen intervention that has followed the so-called political awakening exhibited by many Nigerians, especially young people, towards the 2023 general election. Apart from millions of people who voted for the first time on February 25, there are those who are just getting their first immersion in how politics work in Nigeria, and those who do not like what they see and are now taking action to change it. A good number of these politically conscious citizens are in the tech industry.

“We as ‘elites’ watch CNN, BBC, etc, we then drink Whiskey and analyse and celebrate how the West hold incredibly high standards and accountability from their leaders; then turn around to accept mediocrity, autocracy, and opaque governance as decent in our own motherland. I reject this,” said Ayo-Bankole Akintujoye, founder of Caladium Consulting, a startup that focuses on providing solutions to small businesses.

They may not agree on a consensus candidate or on political ideas – Tayo Oviosu, CEO of Paga says he trusts the results that made Bola Tinubu president-elect whereas Victor Asemota, a tech investment adviser, says the umpire is compromised – but they are united against a system that has consistently ridden on their efforts, their achievements and image but given back very little.

The first time they tried to unite was during the EndSARS protests. The officers of the now-defunct Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) had also targeted many young tech workers whom they labelled internet fraudsters or the popular local slang ‘Yahoo boys’ because many of them carried laptops while dressed in jeans and T-shirts, with their hair in locks.

In fact, the EndSARS protest was triggered by a video of a SARS operative brutalising a young man in Delta State and fleeing with his car. The death of the young man spurred protests across the country with Lagos becoming the epicentre due to the interest it generated among notable personalities in the entertainment and tech industry.

The protests were seen as a great awakening of young people that could lead to far-reaching reforms in government institutions, starting with security. It was however not to be as the much-awaited reform in the police – though promised by the government – never materialised. Many saw the protests as unsuccessful because it was hijacked by hoodlums who destroyed properties and caused loss of lives.

Editi Effiong, founder of Anakle, a film production startup, who spent months documenting the proceedings of the panel set up by the Lagos State government to review the incidents that took place during the EndSARS protest, said he is still angry at the way the government handled the process.

“I didn’t spend nine hours in a courtroom twice a week for months to not have an agenda. My agenda is to punish the people who killed my people in Lekki,” Effiong said.

Ejobe said it might be too early to call the growing interest a political awakening as it would assume there were huge increases in the number of voters, at least compared to previous elections which have not been the case.

“That could be because BVAS is accrediting people better, so before we can call it an awakening, I’d like to see an increasing trend of increasing numbers of people voting, especially a trend of people in younger categories,” he said. He admits that the interest of the younger generation has significantly grown more than it used to, thanks to the presidential election becoming a three-horse race.

“One of the people who was running was a challenger who was not part of a major party, so that created a feeling of suspense. Can that feeling of suspense be recreated next time? I am not so sure. I think this was a unique election in many ways and even if the political awakening, as you call it, continues, I doubt that it will be in this same fashion because if we have a three-horse race next time, it won’t be the first time. This is the only time it’s going to be the first time we have a three-horse race. It won’t be a surprise and it won’t be a shock. The shock and surprise value of a third candidate doing so well from a previously very small party is unique to this election,” Ejobe said.


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