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If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It

The announcement last week by the Executive Vice Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of the National Agency for Science and Engineering Infrastructure (NASENI), Dr. Mohammed Sani Haruna that there are plans to replace the card reader in the conduct of elections in the country has raised many eyebrows. Haruna dropped the hint after the National Economic Council’s meeting last week. 

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NASENI said, “The Executive Vice Chairman/CEO of NASENI presented a home-grown proposal to the NEC for the replacement of the card reader in the conduct of elections in the country. The proposal is a made in Nigeria Solar-Powered Electronic Voting System to effectively mitigate current electronic woes. The new proposed robust e-voting device will minimize human interference with electoral process. The same proposal which has already been presented to INEC is also expected to be presented to the National Assembly.”

Our simple advice to NASENI, INEC and the Federal Government is: don’t try it. The term “card reader” became very popular in Nigeria when INEC first used it in the 2015 general election. It is a portable electronic voter authentication device which was configured to read only Permanent Voter Cards issued by INEC. It was used to authenticate voters during the accreditation process, before a voter cast his vote. Added security features include that each card reader was configured to read only the PVCs of a particular polling unit. It worked only on Election Day, and even on that day it shut down soon after the accreditation exercise, after it transmitted the total number of validly accredited voters in a polling unit to INEC’s server.

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Even though the card reader only appeared in Nigerians’ imagination and found an honoured place in our national consciousness in the run up to, during and after the last general elections, INEC had planned to deploy it at least since 2011. It was an integral part of the issuing of PVCs, the groundwork for which was laid by the cumbersome voters’ registration exercise of early 2011. That exercise was cumbersome because it captured each voter’s essential data for incorporation into a chip on the PVC. All that diligent work would have gone to the dogs if not because of the card reader, which authenticated each PVC presented at a polling station before a voter could vote.

Not for nothing did the card reader soon become the single most celebrated electronic device in Nigeria since the GSM handset. All at once it took care of multifarious Nigerian election malpractices such as ballot box stuffing, snatching of ballot boxes, buying other people’s voters’ cards and false accreditation exercises. Collaboration between polling officers, security agents and politicians also because non-starters because polling officers no longer had control over the accreditation process and could not manipulate it however much they wanted to. All of these malpractices were now in vain because INEC’s server has the authentic number of accredited voters in each and every polling unit.

It was no surprise that in the run up to the 2015 elections, the then ruling PDP and its government made strenuous efforts to abort the use of card reader in the elections, mostly by latching on to envisaged technical hitches. Indeed there were some hitches but they were the exception rather than the rule. The 2015 elections turned out to be the most credible in the country’s history and most Nigerians believe this was only achieved because of the card reader. That’s an exaggeration of course because card reader alone would have been useless without PVCs and a very determined and principled INEC led at the time by Professor Attahiru Jega.

Given that feat, imagine our surprise to hear that NASENI is considering a homemade replacement for the card reader. If it is because the card reader is a foreign made device, this country is full of foreign made devices of less utility than the card reader. We advise NASENI to seek to replace those less useful or in fact useless devices that litter this country, including those being used by governments, security agencies etc. If NASENI wants to test its engineering prowess, it should not experiment with a device that has done this country a lot of good. It should rather start with less sensitive devices and machinery. 

Nigeria has no shortage of machinery, plants, devices and engines which are crying out for engineering wizardry. For example, any machine NASENI can invent that can add several thousand megawatts to the national grid will be most welcome. NASENI spoke about solar power, which should most readily be deployed to improve electricity supply. We cannot understand the rationale for starting this solar based experiment with the card reader. If it is because of battery problems, INEC said in 2015 that each card reader, when fully charged, could last for twelve hours. This is more than enough to cover the period of voters’ accreditation. There is no need to seek to replace this with a solar powered battery which in most cases is less efficient and less reliable than one charged with electricity. 

In short, any attempt to replace the card reader could run into more technical problems and Nigerians, especially opposition parties are likely to say it was a deliberate ploy to discard the machine so that the current rulers could rig elections. We take note of what the Resident Electoral Commissioner for Anambra State Dr. Nwachukwu Orji recently said, that during the recent gubernatorial election in Anambra State some community leaders connived with INEC officials to disable card readers. The card reader has served Nigeria very well. It has not presented any insurmountable problems that would require a major overhaul. To borrow a common American phrase, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

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