As Nigerians prepare for Saturday’s presidential election, the integrity of the vote will hang in large part on the success of a new voter card system that includes thousands of hand-held electronic card readers.
The system is designed to prevent identity theft, ballot stuffing and fraud, which marred previous elections and helped spark post-election rioting and violence in 2011.
But with incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan locked in a tight race with his challenger, former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari, observers say the danger of fraud may be even greater this time.
The cards may go a long way in making at least one part of the voting process transparent, one expert said, but they won’t eliminate fraud altogether.
“The (Jonathan) government will try to go into an election wanting to know the result ahead of time. At the moment, it is not so confident it will win,” said Jasper Veen, a Nigerian expert for the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, a Washington-based nongovernmental organization funded by the U.S. government and others.
“To what extent it is willing to go to secure an electoral outcome?” Veen said. “That is the biggest question.”
Fraud allegations and violence in 2011
Four years ago, when Buhari and Jonathan last faced off, Jonathan won with about 59 percent of the vote. Buhari supporters, however, alleged widespread fraud and sectarian clashes in many northern states resulted in more than 800 deaths.
In that election, some of the country’s 36 states reported more votes being cast than the number of eligible voters. Balloting in some places was marred by cumbersome procedures that resulted in long lines outside polls.
That election was deemed substantially better than the 2007 vote, but problems persisted. The actual tallying of votes, the European Union’s observer mission warned, was “the most fragile part of the process.”
“Despite these improvements, the conduct of the 2011 elections also underscored the need for further reform,” the EU mission’s final report said.
Doubts about the country’ electoral process are reflected in opinion polls.
A Gallup poll released in January found that only 13 percent of Nigerians had confidence in the elections. Among Nigerians who don't approve of the country's leadership, only 8 percent believe in the fairness of the country’s elections. The poll of 1,000 adults was conducted last May and June and had a margin of error of 3.9 percentage points.
A new Afrobarometer survey released Tuesday found doubts about political leaders overall, with clear majorities saying the president, members of the National Assembly, state governors, and state legislators are involved in corruption. That poll of 2,400 adults was taken in December and January and had a margin of error of 2 percentage points.
Permanent voter cards
In 2012, the organization charged with running the vote, the Independent National Electoral Commission, began rolling out “Permanent Voter Cards” to an estimated 70 million eligible voters.The cards contain biometric data, including fingerprints, photographs and other details, and are designed to be used in conjunction with 182,000 card readers being distributed nationwide. The readers are hand-held computers similar to those used in restaurants or car rental agencies.
“What the card reader seeks to do is to enhance the credibility and the integrity of the process,” commission spokesman Nick Dazang told VOA. “In time past the voter register was not only padded, people rigged elections at the point of voting.”
The rollout has been less than smooth. In the months before the original voting date, Feb. 14, officials struggled to distribute the cards in some states. Commission officials have openly warned about the fraud:
“There have been several allegations that some politicians are buying PVCs from some electorate in order to reduce the voting strength of their opponent during election,” Emmanuel Umenger, a top INEC official in the central state of Bauchi, told VOA.
Jonathan’s ruling party publicly criticized the card readers last month, saying they would malfunction. Ruling party members have pressured the commission’s chief, Attahiru Jega, to resign. Last week, he was called in to meet personally with Jonathan.
Some hand scanners have had problems reading fingerprints, Jega said, but that wouldn’t prevent a person from voting.
“Let me also reassure that INEC and all its field officials are determined to be impartial and nonpartisan in the conduct of these elections…” he told reporters Tuesday. “We will continue to do everything humanly possible to ensure a level playing field for all parties and candidates.”
Nigerian social media, in English and the country’s second most common language, Hausa, has been rife for weeks discussions of PVC fraud, but reports of organized fraud have for now been circumstantial.
Some political candidates have been buying up the cars in their opponents’ strongholds, to suppress turnout, according to Clement Nwankwo, executive director of the Policy and Legal Advocacy Centre, a nongovernmental organization based in the capital, Abuja.
An Abuja man named Akwei Igono who called himself a “concerned Nigerian” told VOA that a close friend sold his PVC to his uncle for 1,000 naira (about US$5) who then sold it for five to eight times that amount to a local politician. The goal? To keep opponents’ voters from casting ballots, he said.
In the northern city of Maiduguri, Muhammadu Sani complained that PVCs are being bought by local political leaders for between 3,000-5,000 naira (US$15-25) to keep voters from casting ballots.
“They aren’t being bought just for (the buyer’s sake); they’re being bought to reduce the number of registered voters systematically,” Sani told VOA.
But in Adamawa, a state in Nigeria’s troubled northeast, soldiers earlier this month arrested a man carrying 83 cards, on his way to a town in a neighboring state. Malam Abubakar, a spokesman for Adamawa police, told VOA the man reported he was bringing the cards to refugees fleeing violence by Boko Haram militants, something Abubakar said was doubtful.
In Nigeria’s largest city, Lagos, men wearing naval uniforms have targeted Nigerians from the north to seize voters cards.
Mustapha Mohammed, who makes around 5,000 naira ($25) a day as a motorcycle taxi driver, said his PVC was taken from him last Wednesday, after he was pulled over in a northern Lagos district. The man demanded about $75 to return the card, Mohammed said. After he refused, the man handed back the keys, took the card and left.
“I tried and I tried to get my card back but he refused, so I took my machine and left,” said Mohammed, 21, who comes originally from Maiduguri.
“It’s glaringly obvious that northern Nigerians will vote (for Buhari) so they are harassing us,” he said. “He told me I should go back to where I came from and vote.”
Sell or vote
For some Nigerians, it’s an easier decision to sell their PVCs rather than actually cast a vote. Isihak Muhammad Lowi, a resident of the rural village of Ganjuwa, about 200 miles northeast of the capital Abuja, said that based on the last election, he had little faith that anything positive would come from this one.
The main motivation, however, to sell his PVC was that he needed start-up capital to set up a small business. Selling his card, and those of his wives, is the easiest way to do it.
“I want to sell it, anything from 5,000 to 10,000 naira (US$25-50), even my wives’ cards I will love it if they sell it and use the money for small businesses such as selling firewood, bouillon cubes and garri (fried cassava root) and so on,” Lowi told VOA.
“It will be better off than voting in my opinion,” he said.
Stein reported from Abuja. VOA's Anne Look in Abuja and Peter Clottey, Jamila Fagge and Bello Galadanchi in Washington contributed to this report. Also contributing were Babangida Jibrin in Lagos and Ibrahim Abdulaziz in Adamawa.