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INEC and the Lesson from VAR 

INEC and the Lesson from VAR 

By Olusegun Adeniyi

The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) held a mock accreditation exercise last week in 436 polling units across the country. The purpose was to test the functionality of the Bimodal Voter Accreditation System (BVAS) ahead of the general election that begins next week Saturday with the presidential poll. Available reports indicate that it was largely successful, and I must commend INEC Chairman, Mahmood Yakubu, who is doing all within his powers to give Nigerians a credible election where votes will be counted. And they will count. However, it is important for INEC to be cautious of the potential risks of human error, even with the use of advanced technology like BVAS. I enjoin INEC to read the 20-page report of YIAGA Africa on the BVAS testing and mock accreditation to take onboard some important lessons.   

BVAS and the INEC Election Result Viewing Portal (IReV) are two technological innovations designed to enhance the transparency of elections and boost public trust in their outcomes. These systems, as highlighted by YIAGA Africa, address some of the most pervasive weaknesses in Nigeria’s election result management process, including falsification of votes, falsification of the number of accredited voters, collation of false results, mutilation of results, computational errors, swapping of results sheets, forging of results sheets, snatching and destruction of results sheets, obtaining declarations and returns involuntarily, making declarations and returns while result collation is still in progress, and poor record-keeping. BVAS and IReV, according to YIAGA Africa, work together “to perform critical functions in elections, and they reinforce each other’s effectiveness.”  

By using biometrics (voter fingerprints and facial recognition) for the accreditation process, BVAS has been a game-changer in recent gubernatorial and legislative elections. In addition to greater accountability, its use in capturing images of the polling unit result sheet (Form EC8A) and uploading them in real-time to the IReV online portal has made rigging more difficult. “So far, so good. Voters have been verified using their PVCs and authenticated using their fingerprints or facial based on which they will be given the ballot paper on election day after successful accreditation,” Yakubu enthused following the conclusion of the trial run last week. “In the polling units visited so far, no report of failure. The machines performed optimally, and this is the report we are getting nationwide.”  

One of the significant benefits of BVAS and IReV is the transparency they bring to the electoral process. For instance, the INEC IReV allows members of the public to create personal accounts to access all uploaded results stored as PDF files. However, as with all technologies, these systems are not infallible and the YIAGA report highlights potential pitfalls. INEC must learn from recent events in football, particularly the controversial incidents involving Video Assistant Referees (VAR) in the English premiership last Saturday. These events serve as a stark reminder that even the most sophisticated technology can fail due to human error.   

Officially introduced in March 2018 by the International Football Association Board (IFAB) responsible for the ‘Laws of the Game’, VAR is meant to assist on-field referees in making more accurate and informed decisions by alerting them of “clear and obvious errors” and “serious missed incidents” during a football match. It works with an assistant video assistant referee (AVAR) watching the live action on a big screen in a video operation room to check incidents and communicate outcomes of their reviews to on-field referees. So, what happened last Saturday in England?  

In the match between Arsenal and Brentford, the home team were on their way to securing three points until a controversial goal in the 74th minute by Ivan Toney levelled the score to 1-1. After a lengthy delay during which an innocuous incident between two opposing players was checked, the on-field referee Peter Bankes was advised by Lee Mason in the video room to award a goal. However, Mason—a certified ‘enemy of progress’ to all Gunners worldwide—failed to draw the system lines that would have revealed that Christian Norgaard was offside when he provided the assist for Toney to score. His faulty advice to the referee resulted in an incorrect decision to award the goal that should not have been given. In the case of Brighton who were away to Crystal Palace, the goal by Pervis Estupinan was disallowed following a review by John Brooks in the VAR room who ruled that the Ecuador international was offside. But television pictures later revealed that Brooks drew the computer line incorrectly from James Tomkins rather than from another Palace defender, Marc Guehi, who was playing the striker on in the build-up to the goal. So, the on-field referee relied on faulty information from VAR to deny Brighton a goal that should have been allowed.  

Howard Webb, the Chief Refereeing Officer of the Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL), has informed both Arsenal and Brighton that the mistakes made during their matches in the VAR process were due to human error. In both cases, the technology did not fail, it was humans who dropped the ball. Despite PGMOL’s apologies and the removal of the two erring referees from future matches, the damage to the league campaigns of both teams is already done. The crucial lesson for INEC from these incidents is that, despite the reliability of technology, consequential and irreversible failures can occur due to the human factor.   

When we use technology to drive any process, we make a critical assumption that those managing the process will follow the rules. However, as these football incidents have shown, even the most advanced technology can be compromised by human error, which can then cast doubt on the fairness of the entire process. Such doubts erode public trust and undermine the credibility of the election outcome. Against the backdrop of concerns that a lack of rigor in the application of technology may have influenced the outcome of the Osun gubernatorial election tribunal case, it is important for INEC to impress on its field officers the need to be thorough in the discharge of their responsibility on election day. Those who will handle the BVAS and IReV must possess the competence to work under pressure, respond to emergencies, pay attention to small details and be able to manage a range of issues that may ensue.  

To do this effectively, the commission can learn from its past. For instance, while the 2011 election may have been conducted at a time when INEC technology was not as robust as it is today, the fact that “some data was lost due to incomplete data transfers” during the aggregation phase was significant. Database management, according to the 2011 post-election report, “posed its own challenges as data needed for electoral operational planning was often not forthcoming or not in the form and format in which they will be easily processed.”  

For sure, INEC operations have improved since then. But these lessons are useful. Under Yakubu, there has been a great deal of forward-thinking. For instance, whereas in the past, “posting of all trained electoral staff, including issuance of appointment letters created its challenges particular with issues of proper identification to remove duplications, fake and proxies,” the system is now so automated and data-driven that INEC already has the details of polling/party agents as well as that of journalists who will cover this general election. I can confirm that my registration (and that of other THISDAY reporters) for field and collation coverage was done more than a month ago on the online portal created by INEC. 

Given his desire to continue improving electoral systems and processes with technology, I have faith in Yakubu and his commission. But others must also play their part for us to realize a successful and credible general election. For instance, it remains to be seen how what the Nigeria Governors Forum (NGF) has appropriately dubbed a ‘Naira Confiscation’ policy by the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) will impact the election. INEC is reportedly yet to receive the required cash for smooth operations in our kind of environment and under the prevailing circumstance. I understand that the security sector is facing a similar cash crunch. 

I don’t know of any country where the state and its agent, in this case CBN, would flagrantly confiscate people’s hard-earned currency notes to achieve ill-digested political objectives. But that is what happens when, as Ewi exponent, Lanrewaju Adepoju once sang, you have a leader who is deaf to the cries of his people, as President Muhammadu Buhari obviously is. If the goal of this policy was to set the country on fire, then we can surmise that things are going in the ‘right direction’. And with governors issuing different orders in their states on what constitutes legal tender in Nigeria amid violent protests, anarchy is not too far away. 

Let me be clear. I wholeheartedly support efforts to give Nigeria a credible election. But I do not buy the argument that the CBN policy was done to checkmate vote-buying. That is not one of the mandates of the apex bank. Besides, due to the Naira squeeze, we may witness more vote-buying than we have ever experienced in any previous election because of hunger. Yet, people at CBN are carrying on with extraordinary arrogance. In case they are living in another world, this policy has so traumatized and pauperised the ordinary people that many will sell their votes for as little as a loaf of bread on election day. Even more worrisome is that the judiciary is increasingly being dragged into these issues because our politicians—especially within the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) who cannot resolve their internal contradictions in-house (another Buhari failure)—have become more desperate. 

Overall, while I am optimistic that INEC operations have improved, it is critical to recognize that the application of technology in the electoral process is a continuing challenge. To ensure that the will of the people is accurately reflected in the election outcome, the Commission must review past election reports and take stock of the lessons, particularly about addressing gaps in the capacity of its field officers. By doing so, INEC can stay alert to the risks of human error and deliver a credible, transparent electoral process that earns the trust of Nigerians. 

Congratulations, Ali Pate 

After a rigorous and competitive process that started in 2021 with 344 applicants across the world, Mohammed Ali Pate, 54, was on Monday announced as the next CEO of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. In unanimously recommending him (Pate) to the Board, according to a statement by the public-private global health partnership, “both the Search Committee and Governance Committee noted Dr Pate’s achievements as Minister of State for Health in Nigeria in 2011–2013, during which time he led a flagship initiative to revive routine immunisation and primary health care, chaired a presidential taskforce to eradicate polio and introduced new vaccines into the country.” 

Pate, who led the “World Bank’s US$ 18 billion COVID-19 global health response and represented the Bank on various boards, including those of Gavi, the Global Fund, CEPI and UNAIDS, among other assignments” is one of the foremost experts on vaccines and immunisation. He first brought this expertise to bear at home when in 2008 the late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua appointed him to head the National Primary Health Care Development Agency (NPHCDA). He discharged himself so creditably that President Goodluck Jonathan later elevated him to the position of Minister of State for Health. 

A well-respected international scholar and administrator, Dr Pate is among the growing number of Diaspora Nigerians who continue to make our country proud in the global arena. I wish him success in his new assignment. 

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