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Thursday, May 13, 2010

Discourse 256 E-voting


Yes, E-voting

(Last week, INEC held a workshop in Kaduna on e-voting. I once wrote about it in 2006 when the issue was debated and thrown out of the floor of the National Assembly. Since the issue has arisen once again, I felt inclined to reproduce the article, unedited, for the benefit of my readers today.)

In the past six years, this column has shared the widespread belief that changing things for the better in this country is very difficult or outright impossible. Since 1979, we have seen the ascendancy of extensive corruption and abuse of power in various forms. Worse than that, we have seen how culprits of such abuses went Scot free, or, as in many situations, were rewarded with recognition and lucrative privileges in society. We continued to entrust our hope in tomorrow, in new administrations that may improve on our conditions. But save for the brief tenure of Buhari and Idiagbon, all of them proved to be disasters worse than their predecessors.

The latest in the line is the present administration. The 2003 elections, for example, were devoid of slightest finesse of civilisation, so bizarre that only a primitive mind could contemplate. Also, never in our history have we heard of billions stolen by governors, an IG and other officials of government. Finally, the third term agenda and the recently failed census have clearly shown that nothing has changed in the mindset of our leaders since 1974 – a political stagnation of four decades! This justified pessimism is so conquering that it led many advocates of change to abandon hope and take refuge in despondency. Confounded in this despair, they have many times asked the million years old question: Where is the way out?

It is amidst this depressing continuum that I caught a glimpse of what I think is our saviour: Technology, something we can simply define as the use of devises to overcome the shortcomings of human ability. It is reassuring to note that, except where it is deliberately misused, technology has throughout history come to the aid of mankind by making its task easier, cheaper, safer, faster, more accurate, more trustworthy and more egalitarian. In extreme cases, as in ours today, it has many times made possible what was earlier thought to be impossible. The Night Journey of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) from Mecca to Jerusalem, for example, was greeted in the ancient city the following morning by utter disbelief, coming even from some of his followers. Today, technology has made it possible for us to undertake the same journey ten times in a single night! Likewise, our ancestors would never believe that they can speak to their relations in a neighbouring village from their homes without stepping out of their homes. Today, we can speak to anybody in the world in a split of a second, thanks to technology.

The theme of a series of articles on this page will be what technology has in stock for our proponents of change. We will begin with the employment of electronic voting machine, or e-voting for short, during the next elections.

The initial reaction of the status quo to technology is always negative. Partly due to our naturally endowed inertia, the human mind is more comfortable with what it knows; few will dare to adventure in order to invent, try or adopt new devices. Even in the current debate on e-voting, I have heard some members of the National Assembly saying that the devil you know is better than the saint you do not know. That sounds too extreme even on the scale of indolence.

Another reason is that status quo members do not have the guts to gamble with the uncertainty that accompanies change, since it does not assure them the positions they are holding. Let us face it. How many of our legislators will return to their seats in 2007 if we assume a successful e-voting? Less than 10%, I believe. To be fair to them, how do we expect them to dig their graves? Neither would Obasanjo. He knows clearly that he stands the least chance of winning any free and fair election. If he promotes e-voting now, it is because he believes he can use it to rig better, without resorting to the crude and primitive methods which his foot soldiers employed on 4-19.

Both the executive and legislative arms of government are scared of e-voting because their majority is dishonest, cheats who usurped mandates that do not belong to them. The implications of a transparent voting system are clear. It means that rigging, their only means of acquiring power, will be very difficult to carry out. And since most of them are morally bankrupt, returning to their roots to win a clean slate is certainly impossible.

They are also afraid that e-voting will empower their enemies, the people. It will give the people the chance to choose the leaders they want, reliable people whom they know very well but who have been barred from leadership simply because they cannot hire thugs to kill political opponents, or contract the printing of fake ballot papers, or buy election results from agents of other parties, etc.

Finally, decadent politicians are also afraid of those who a transparent system will favour. The political elite of this country as we have often repeated on this page are generally contemptuous of merit because it will, on the one hand, generously reward hard work and, on the other, brutally punish mediocrity. What will they do with the baggage of corrupt practices and truck loads of criminal acts when the electoral system one day makes a prudent leadership possible?

I am not surprised, though. I watched the debate on e-voting on the floor of the Senate, where the disapproval was almost unanimous. What else did the nation expect? Their excuses were four: the illiterate nature of our population; the programmability of the machine, the cost of acquiring it and absence of adequate infrastructure for its function.

I dismiss the above reasons as too simplistic, very silly and incredibly myopic. To begin with, the programmability of a machine does not make it worthless. We see this in everyday life. Take the instance of filling stations. Some markers cheat by programming their service machines to read volumes of petrol higher than the one served to a customer. Does that stop us from buying fuel from the filling station and resorting to buying fuel from drums? Likewise, does the programmability of a computer deny its use in banking and other crucial areas of life? Does the absence of uninterrupted electricity compelled doctors to prefer bush lamps during operations? Do we prefer donkeys simply because using cars on our roads carry the risk of accidents? Every system is open to abuse and it is the responsibility of the state to limit the extent of abuse to a tolerable limit using the instruments of law: DPR in the first example above; EFCC in the second; NEPA – sorry PHCN – in the third; and FRSC in the fourth. That is what happens in places where e-voting takes place.

India has hundreds of millions of illiterates. But that does not deny the use of e-voting there. The system can be used in such a way that could circumvent the difficulty that illiteracy would engender. After all, we can learn from the Indians. The problem is that we think that stating the existence of a problem automatically denies the probability of a solution. FOUL.

Electronic machines have affinity for electricity. Agreed. But there are many electronic devices that work on batteries, which could even be recharged by solar power which is abundant anywhere in the country. In the same vein, the electronic counting machines could employ solar rechargeable cells. Simple. And the whole noise about infrastructure is quietened.

Finally, I wonder how many projects, personal and official, are started with the all the resources required at hand. If three trillion naira is required to purchase the machines, they are worth it. But that does mean that we will write INEC a cheque of that amount in a day or even during the tenure of a single regime. We have spent trillions on roads since 1940; trillions on electricity; trillions of education; etc. We are able to do that over time. These crooks want to scare us with figures, while the same people are not scared of stealing billions from our treasury.

What we need is to give e-voting a chance. We should look at it as a process, not an event. It may take a decade or two to acquire and perfect. What is important is to start it. Let us begin by allowing both manual and e-voting to be used in 2007, perhaps by limiting e-voting to urban areas. That will enable us acquire a reasonable number of the machines in the beginning, put them to use and work towards perfection with time. After all, machines get cheaper by the year. Gradually, the domain of their use can be expanded until they become nationwide. This may take twenty years or more. It is something that we may not benefit from instantly but starting it accords the opportunity for our children to realise the dream of a free and fair election.

Now, if we insist on saying no to e-voting, what alternatives do we have in place? First we are only aiding criminals who will continue to suffocate us with their primitive conduct in office and who are ready to do anything to subvert our electoral will. We must not aid them. Two, and in any case, the PDP will certainly rig 2007 elections again. This is as real as death. And Nigerians will do nothing about it, knowing really what we are. So which is better: allowing the introduction of a technology which will help us fight against these odds to a finish one day, or clinging to their old method, which they have perfected since the days of NPC, Action Group and NCNC and remain doomed forever?

I will rather choose the first option, introducing technology now, no matter how imperfect, for it carries along the assurance of self-perfection in due course. Thus at 60 or 65, I will have the pleasure of voting a leader of my choice. I cannot afford the status quo which only guarantees the eternal subversion of my political will. What makes my belief strong in this case is that once introduced, technology becomes indomitable, irresistible, and irreversible. Never again will we ride donkeys to Lagos, send transport money to our children in distant schools via postal orders, or trek to Mecca, except for the fun of tourism. Technology creeps in initially; then it invades; and finally it conquers and wins. Technology is a flood; once you allow it a small hole in our polity, it will destroy the entire structure of dishonesty on which some people have been living fat. In fact, once e-voting is introduced, there will not be any need for me to defend it on this page. It possesses an immutable survival gene.

Hey, my dear reader. Declare your stand on this matter now: Are you with them, the crooks who have been rigging elections, or with us, the oppressed people of this country? I want an answer from your conscience, not from your mind or brain, for the last two are slaves of desires.

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