Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Nigeria, electronic voting for a transitioning nation

An electoral official arranges ballot papers in Uyo, Nigeria, on April 26, 2011.
(Photo: AP/Christian Science Monitor)
On September 20, 2012, Kofi Annan, Chair of the Global Commission on Elections, Democracy and Security, and former Secretary-General of the United Nation, published in CNN an article titled Why we should grade countries on their elections.

Kofi Annan stated "Democracy is a universal value and aspiration, unbound by region, ethnicity, culture or religion. In the last two decades, it has spread across the world in unprecedented ways.

Elections are fundamental to the ethos and principles of democracy. They provide citizens with a say in the decisions that affect them and governments with a legitimate authority to govern. When elections are credible, free and fair, they can help promote democracy, human rights and security.

But when elections are fraudulent, as we have seen in a number of countries, they can trigger political instability and even violence. This means that for democracy to fulfill its potential as a means of peacefully resolving social and political conflict, the integrity of elections is crucial."

Nigeria is a great example to illustrate the ideas Mr. Annan vividly expressed in his article. Since 1999, the nation has been experiencing a difficult transition process, from a 30-year dictatorial military regime that ruled the nation to a functional democracy. Although democracy became the preferred governing system around the world during the last few decades, nations are still struggling to conduct fair, free and transparent elections. Nigeria is no exception.

Throughout time, Nigerian elections were marred with all sorts of irregularities. Not too long ago, in 2007, Human Rights Watch researchers found evidence of vote-rigging throughout the country. "Instead of guaranteeing citizens' basic right to vote freely, Nigerian government and electoral officials actively colluded in the fraud and violence that marred the presidential polls in some areas," said Peter Takirambudde, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "In other areas, officials closed their eyes to human rights abuses committed by supporters of the ruling party and others."

In spite of the long history of government abuses, Nigeria has made some progress in election administration. In April 11, the most populous nation in Africa, held a series of electoral process deemed by international observers as a great step forward.

A clear determination to hold credible elections, and strengthen their democracy, allowed Nigeria to conduct a process in which, the ruling party and opposition won seats in the parliament, and some incumbent congressmen lots theirs. Just like in any modern and civilized democracy.

Julia Hedlund, IFES Program Manager in Nigeria, stated in an interview, that the outcome was well received by Nigerians and observers. The INEC, Nigeria's electoral body, undertook certain steps that made the difference. Two of those steps that stand out were the revision of the voter register, and the inclusion of Biometric technology. Technology, a factor bringing accuracy, efficiency and transparency to election administration throughout the world, was key to what might be considered Nigeria's first truly democratic elections in this new era.

As Nigeria moves forward, and continues transitioning towards a more stable, representative and fair democracy, authorities from INEC must consider expanding the use of technology to grant the elections with the level of transparency and legitimacy needed to build trust in institutions and the overall system. Legitimate results are paramount to any country trying to build a democracy in the wake of a long dictatorship.