Cheta Nwanze, Head of Research, SBM Intelligence

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Subjects of Interest

  • Fiscal Policy
  • Geopolitical Analysis
  • Governance
  • Politics

SMS voting may solve Nigerian voter apathy 16 May 2018

On Sunday, 22 April, 2018, my wife achieved what was previously inconceivable. She persuaded me to watch a small section of Big Brother Naija (BBNaija), the Dutch reality television show franchise. How did she achieve this?
Well, while other family members were watching the BBNaija TV show in the living room, I decided to go to the bedroom and mind my business with the big Juventus-Napoli football match in Italy. I was quietly watching that game when my wife sent me a WhatsApp message: “170 million text messages at ₦30 each, that is ₦5.1 billion, apart from advertising income. Even if organisers spent ₦1 billion on production, prizes, performance fees, logistics et al, ₦4.1 billion is a tidy sum to take to the bank. Note that ₦900 million was made in just the final week.”

That was enough to get me off my seat, especially as Juventus, the team I support, was losing, anyway. Somehow, Big Brother Naija had been able to achieve something that the Nigerian government has been failing at, which is corralling a large voter turnout. While the comparison of an entertainment programme – which featured a large dose of licentiousness – and the electoral system might be inapt, it gives us an idea of how we might be able to improve transparency in our elections and reduce the trust deficit in the voting system.

At the end of the show, something crossed my mind, and I put it out on social media. I said although people see the number of votes cast during the BBNaija programme as an indictment of our apathy to politics, I see it differently. Our apathy is driven, in large part, by election day stress. (Bad political outcomes also play a role). From my viewpoint, the BBN voter turnout should spur us to try text message voting system in future elections.

My tweet, with accompanying Facebook and Instagram posts, generated a lot of attention. While some people felt that electronic voting by way of text messaging in Nigeria is a great idea, many others felt it is not. One of the disadvantages of text message voting, according to the naysayers, was the potential for rigging. Simply put, a smart alec would buy multiple SIM cards with which to manipulate the results of the election.

While I see the reason for the distrust for a mobile phone voting system, I disagree that text message voting cannot work. This is because globally, technology and digitisation have been driving a lot of attention towards the advantages of electronic voting over traditional paper-based voting. In Nigeria, some analysts have advocated for electronic voting system as the panacea for achieving free, fair and credible elections.

There are various biometric datasets that are now available to the Nigerian government and its agencies. Some of these datasets include information on drivers’ licences, Permanent Voters’ Cards, and international passports. For some people, the government has their national identity cards information, and for at least 52 million bank accounts, or 39 million Nigerians, there are the Bank Verification Numbers (BVNs).

One problem is that these various databases are not harmonised. For example, the national identity card project, first mooted in 1976, was eventually outsourced to the now-defunct French company, Sagem. Following several botched attempts including in 2006, there was a presidential launch of another national ID scheme on 28th August, 2014. The project is being implemented by the National Identity Management Commission (NIMC), in partnership with Access Bank Plc, MasterCard, Unified Payment Services Limited and Cryptovision. The project is still a long way from achieving its stated objective to “harmonise all identity databases including the Driver’s License, Voter Registration, Health Insurance, Tax, SIM and the National Pension Commission into a single, shared services platform,” according to the NIMC.

It is, however, interesting to note that of all the identity datasets available to the Nigerian government, the mobile network operators’ subscribers’ database is the largest. According to the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), as of December 2017, there were about 145 million active mobile phone lines. Because most Nigerian subscribers have multiple phone lines. Creduity, a lender that makes use of mobile phone services for lending, estimates that there are 2.5 phone lines per individual in Nigeria. This makes the unique number of individuals with phones 58 million.

Partly because of the Boko Haram insurgency, every mobile phone owner was mandated to undergo a Know Your Customer (KYC) process and biometric information of subscribers was captured. With at least 58 million unique identities in this database, this represents 32.2 percent of all Nigerians.

If this KYC data is put to good use, each unique individual, on Election Day, would be asked to send a single text message containing the name of their choice candidate for each position being contested for, from any of the lines linked to their KYC biometrics, to the central text messaging repository, to be supervised by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). An SMS voting app by INEC would be deployed to make voting easy, especially for illiterate voters. There are so many advantages to this, including the updating of results in real time.

Text messages can be geo-located, hence ensuring the integrity of the votes. A mobile phone voting system will also reduce the incidence of violence since voting will no longer require people to go out in the streets on Election Day. This will also save INEC itself the cost of deploying and protecting the lives of many election officials.

Many people have kicked against this idea, almost by reflex. It is not an issue of the lack of technology or impracticality. It is an issue of trust deficit. Distrust is the big political weed that has taken root in a system that has suffered from a lack of integrity since before independence when we began making efforts to practise a representative system of government. Ultimately, distrust in the system leads to apathy, a recurring problem in the Nigerian political life.

Since 1999, election turnout has been anaemic at best. Available data show there were 30.2 million votes cast in 1999; 42 million in 2003; 39.89 million in 2007; 39.47 million in 2011; and 29.43 million in 2015. In a country that is close to a population of 180 million people, these numbers indicate low political participation.

A suboptimal electoral system based on a database of limited utility, combined with the feisty nature of our politics, essentially disenfranchises a significant proportion of Nigerians every four years. Facilitating the efficient and convenient exercise of the franchise is an integral part of a democratic society and improving democratic principles.

The mobile phone registration drive was a step in the right direction. With a bit more strategic planning, the NCC and BVN databases could have been combined into what one observer rather fittingly called a “Mobile Verification Number (MVN).” This is especially apt when we consider that every bank account holder has, as a matter of law, a registered phone number.

Even in Nigeria, all this is not just theoretical. Advanced de-duplication technology with the capability to harmonise disparate biometric datasets were applied successfully to remove identical records during the voter registration process for the 2015 general elections. Such technologies will also be used by the Zimbabwean Electoral Commission towards their elections later this year.

The enduring challenge to mobile voting would be the threat of cyberattacks, including hacking. At their worst, cyberattacks could cause, or lead to, temporary outage of the voting system. If this happens during actual voting, it could cause a huge crisis. But the response to the threat of cyberattacks against several critical systems, including those for capital markets, health information and the military, is to deter attacks and bolster security.

Cheta Nwanze is Head of Research at SBM Intelligence.