Thursday, April 23, 2015

Putting a finger on Nigeria's biometric woes

To say that Nigeria has faced its fair share of problems, challenges and even crises would be a severe understatement. Even so, the government and the people of Nigeria are working hard to turn things around for the young democracy that still battles with corruption and severe infrastructure issues. Nigeria is a nation in transition and it is struggling to conduct fair, free and transparent elections. It has had a long history of government abuses that it must now work to overcome.

Working toward this ambitious and righteous goal, Nigeria implemented a biometric voter verification system for its most recent federal elections held toward the end of March 2015. Muhammadu Buhari defeated incumbent Goodluck Jonathan by the narrowest of margins, earning just under 54% of the popular vote. For this election, every Nigerian voter was supposed to receive a permanent voter card that stores his or her biometric information for the purposes of authentication at the polls.

While Nigeria has already had an Automated Fingerprint Identification System for a few years, the old system was only used to create a digital register. This was designed to prevent multiple voting at the polls by eliminating doubles from the voter register. With the new system, the identity of the voter is more accurately authenticated to prevent ballot stuffing from “ghost” votes, underage voting, and otherwise illegal or unauthorized votes.

Unfortunately, the 2015 elections in Nigeria were marred with a number of issues and these were already demonstrated in an early mock polling held a few weeks before the actual election itself. In that trial run, held in 225 polling units and 358 voting centres across the country, many of the identity card readers took as many as 20 minutes for the verification process. What's more, over 40 percent of the voters who participated in the early test were not identified by the system. They reportedly had valid voter smart cards, but they were not recognized.

These issues were not suitably rectified ahead of the March 28 election day. The election itself faced several technical glitches that resulted in the need to extend voting to the following day. Again, the verification process simply took too long or didn't work at all. The adoption of e-voting technology in general and biometric authentication in particular has been a challenge for the African continent with significant problems experienced by other elections, like those in Ghana in 2012, as well.

The causes of these problems in Nigeria are similarly mirrored across other African democracies. The malfunctioning technology can be traced back to poor implementation by electoral commissions, not performing the needed due diligence well ahead of Election Day. The lack of proper infrastructure is another concern, like the lack of reliable electricity access. In Nigeria in particular, the elections were also troubled with attacks by the Boko Haram terrorist group, who disrupted many of the day's proceedings.

Another big issue with biometric voter registration and authentication? Dirty hands. The fact of the matter is that biometric fingerprint readers will always work best with clean hands. However, a significant proportion of the Nigerian population have dirty hands from working the gardens or cooking over a charcoal or firewood stove. Their hands can be dirty or oily when they reach the polling stations and this can create problems for the biometric authentication process.

For this reason, as popular as fingerprint readers may be in the context of biometric authentication, alternative technologies may need to considered for regions such as Nigeria. There are promising possibilities afforded by iris scans, for example, though the technology may be more costly than fingerprint scanners.

The road toward a fair, open, transparent and secure election in Nigeria will be a long and arduous one filled with many more challenges to come. The experience with this year's election was surely a difficult one, but there is hope and potential for a brighter tomorrow. Positive steps were taken in Namibia's first election with e-voting technology, for example, and Tanzania would be well advised to take the Nigerian experience under consideration as it looks toward its own national election later this year.