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Several attempts to attack INEC server failed – Yakubu

The Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Prof Mahmood Yakubu, says several attempts have been made by cyber criminals and election riggers to hack into the commission’s server during the recent off-season governorship elections in Anambra, Ekiti, and Osun states. In this interactive session with Editors in Lagos, the INEC boss reaffirms the conduct of credible elections in 2023. Linus Aleke transcribes the interview.

INEC has proposed N305bn budget for the conduct of the 2023 general elections, how sustainable is this?

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Elections are expensive, simply because of the way we conduct our elections. Let me repeat myself, elections are expensive simply because of the way we conduct our elections, the baseline is that in a stable democracy, the cost is far lower, than in a developing or emerging democracy, and part of the cost that we pay for in our elections is the cost of the absence of trust in public institutions. In France for instance, the ballot paper is like an A4 sheet of paper, because it is unthinkable that anybody in France will snatch the ballot paper. But here in Nigeria, we print ballot papers to currency quality and entrust the ballot paper to the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN). For example; the CBN holds the ballot paper for all the protocol and security according to the movement of the national currency, just to protect the process.

This is not going to be done cheaply, so, we pay for the lack of trust in the system. But how do you measure the cost of an election? You spread the entire cost per voter and if you do so, Nigeria’s election is not even the most expensive, not even in West Africa. Relying on the last election conducted in Ghana, if you take the voter population per Capita concerning the cost, the Ghanaian election, actually was more expensive than the Nigerian election. Kenya had its election last month and I was in Nairobi, it was the most expensive election ever conducted in Kenya and the most expensive in Africa. What they spend is much higher than Nigeria for a voter population of 22 million as against our projected 95 million registered voters. The cost in Nigeria I think is $9 per head, as against what happens in other countries of the world. Once you browse the internet, you will see the cost of elections, ours is not even amongst the most expensive elections. Now, we said the cost of an election in Nigeria in 2023, is N305bn of our national budget. What is the national budget this year? With over N17trn as budget, the cost of election then comes to 1.8 percent, it is not even per cent of the national budget or federal budget because it does not even include the state budgets. So, yes, while the N305bn is quite a huge amount of money, see what the money is spent essentially on, if you remove technology costs, 60 per cent of the cost of an election in Nigeria is spent on logistics and personnel allowances. I told you that for the two elections we will engage 1.4 million Nigerians, they all have to be paid, and they all have to be transported to various locations. I must also, say, that virtually every Nigerian is an auditor on the work of INEC. The Electoral Act said that when you go to your polling unit, the first thing you need to do is to take the inventory of all the materials, from ballot boxes to the voting cubicles, to the result sheets to the ballot papers, twine, envelope, etc.

Goodbye, Her Royal Majesty!

 

In one of the polling units in Ekiti or Osun, there was a delay in the commencement of the poll, because there was no stamp pad. They said they had to see the stamp pad because the law said that they must take inventory. I had always asked the audience like this, how many of them went to their polling unit on Election Day and did not see the ballot box? Did they see a cardboard or Bacco super sack? How many of you? All these materials are delivered and there are some costs associated with the delivery of this material.

There is a joke in Nigeria that, “no matter how remote a village is, the ballot box gets there, but not development. But what Nigerians don’t say is that the ballot box did not carry itself there, somebody took the ballot box there. Each time we prepare an election budget, it is done with the knowledge that we do our elections in two phases. As, I said earlier, during national and state elections, surely, some of the ballot boxes may never come back, some will be stolen, some will be smashed, and maybe God forbid, some will be involved in an accident on some vehicles.

The last time we conducted general elections, we engaged over 80,000 vehicles for the elections, and in the riverine areas, we also engaged boats for electoral logistics. Each time we make procurement, we have 10 percent offer in case, so, that is the reality of conducting elections in Nigeria. I am sure that as we continue to build trust and confidence in the process, the cost of election will come down considerably. One country that I admired so well is Norway, we observed the last general elections in Norway, and what happened? They had more ballot papers than registered voters, even political parties can print their ballot papers. But there, the most important thing is not the ballot paper. On the back of it, there is a box, which, the equivalent of a presiding officer has to stamp, as the legitimate ballot paper of the accreditation. So, any ballot paper found in the box without a stamp is considered invalid in Oslo (Norway). During their election, the stamp is more important than the ballot paper. Every country has its system but as we can see, as we continue to build trust the cost of the election is going to come down. Sometimes, I dare say, even some of our friends in the media, corporate social responsibility often takes the back seat, as the election period is harvest time, we have to break away from all these. So, the conduct of the election is capital intensive, about the national budget and I often challenge people who ask me this kind of question, to do a small analysis, with N305bn as a percentage of N17trn, it comes to 1.8 per cent to conduct an election for the whole of West African. I know that the commission receives support from development partners, we don’t receive cash from development partners, we propose some projects, and if it is consistent with what they can fund they fund it and account to their donors. But there are areas we would never accept support from anybody, the core electoral activities like election technology, sensitive materials, and voter registration is the supreme responsibility of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. So, the Nigerian state must make resources available for these activities. Tall and short of what I am saying is, yes, I agree that it may look expensive once in four years because it doesn’t happen every year but we will continue to build public confidence and trust in the system that will have a consequential impact on the cost of an election, this may answer your question.

There are insinuations in some quarters that election tax should be introduced to fund elections, do you agree with that view?
On election tax, is it possible, well, I cannot see how citizens can be taxed for the conduct of the elections, who collects the tax? Is it not the government? The government will collect the tax, if you add the cost of collection, you will realise at the end of the day that you are saving nothing. Because you know, you have to pay for the collectors’ transportation and logistics. I think the sovereign, should continue to bear the responsibility for the core activities, but by working together with all of you, we can continue to build trust and reduce the cost.

The Bi-Modal Voter Accreditation System (BVAS) is based on bandwidth and we know that some remote villages have network challenges, how do you hope to tackle this?
Let me state what BVAS does. On Election Day, it accredits voters, after elections, it snaps the image of the polling units’ level results and transmits it to the INEC portal. We need bandwidth only in two respect when we configure the BVAS before we deploy, and we take several days to do so, it is not something to be done in six hours, and when we transmit results. The thing with the result is that when you transmit results from the polling units, even if there is no network, as you move to the wards, even if it is a free web, it transmits the results to the portal. But on election day, and some people may think that we consistently operate on connectivity during voting, you don’t require internet connectivity for voter accreditation it is done offline. Once you configure the BVAS, if there is a problem with the BVAS, that you have to reconfigure it, then you need bandwidth, but when it is operating normally at the polling unit, it works offline. You don’t need connectivity in that respect.

The CUPP recently raised an issue of litigation against the commission bothering on the use of BVAS, what are you doing concerning that matter?
The suit in Owerri, INEC has said nothing, officially, INEC is not aware of that suit, we have not been served, so we would not comment on what is not before us. When we are properly served, we would respond accordingly, and now that the matter is in court, there is a limit to what we can say, because it is subjudice, but just as you read the story in the media, that was how INEC read that story in the media. When we are served, we would then respond officially, this is the advice from people like Festus Okoye who are lawyers.
When you stated that there were attempts to hack the commission’s server during the Ekiti and Osun election it sparked a lot of reactions, could you please clear the air on that?
I made that statement in a context that all web resources are persistently attacked, whether it is our registration portal or other portals or other resources, they are consistently hacked. It takes the responsibility of the organisation to be fortifying and defending the system and I also added in that statement I made at the YIAGA event that all the attempts failed and we will continue to robustly defend our web resources. But we are not under any illusion that the systems will be attacked. In Anambra, there were several attempts to attack the portal, but at a point, we have to devise a means to divert the hackers and successfully delivered the Anambra election and posted the results online. So far, we have used the portal to conduct 105 bye-elections and the upcoming elections nationwide, without any incident I know that the general elections are huge but we have learnt a lot from what we have done. But as for the defences that INEC is going to employ to protect our web resources, it is not a matter for discussion in the public.

There were issues of increased remunerations for INEC staff, how is the commission handling this?
Well, the reward system is consistent with what can be done under the public service rule. We look forward to the day when there will be a greater incentive and greater remuneration for INEC staff. They do a lot and they take a lot of risks, so, we are all for that, but that is a discussion for another day. There is a need for a review of their remuneration package and the commission is ready and committed to it. But we have to consult several other relevant agencies of government, including how it can be funded, but in principle, we are committed. INEC staff are amongst the most committed public service officials in this country. So, I appreciate and thank you for reminding us of the need to review the remuneration of our staff but you also talked about discipline, because the reward system has to go hand in hand with discipline as well. As much as possible we will do what we can to reward and also take appropriate action against transgressions. There is no electoral commission in the world that conduct elections based on its regular staff strength, some call it temporary staff, in Nigeria, we call them ad-hoc staff, 1.4 million staff, and we cannot recruit and keep this number of staff because we re-conduct elections every four years. So we rely on the temporary staff but while they are serving the commission, they are also life officials of the commission. Sometimes their actions and inactions, particularly the negative actions will rob off negatively on the commission. But there is also a mechanism for dealing with that infractions. When you talk about the primary elections contributing to the enormous cost, because of litigation, it is the reality we have been seeing progressively that we have more litigation challenging elections by political parties, than litigation arising from the conduct of elections by INEC. You know there are two types of elections. The primary elections conducted by the political parties have become so acrimonious but if you compare that to the number of cases challenging the conduct of the election by INEC it becomes insignificant, what it then means is that we have to work with the political parties to strengthen their internal democracy. So, that the primaries are less acrimonious and court cases are reduced as a result.

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There were issues of underage voting in the northern part of the country during the past election, how are you going to avert this in the 2023 elections?
Recall that in 2017 or February 2018, we are here in Lagos when the Kano State Independent Electoral Commission, conducted local government elections and there were so many pictures online of underage voters allegedly voting in that election. We set up a committee to investigate and the report is still online. First, it was not an election conducted by INEC, but some people said that they used the INEC register, they didn’t use the INEC register and therefore, it was a free for all. The way local government elections are often conducted, when we look at these pictures, it can easily be tracked, you can google-track some of the pictures, some of them were from only God knows from which elections. When I shared it with a friend, a senior official of the Vanguard newspaper, he was surprised because the pictures were carried by Vanguard, way back in 2003, but presented as under-age voters in Kano State in 2018, it is still there online, and you can see the pictures. But my surprise always is, I hear this, but when elections are conducted by the commission, we go round and we don’t see these underage voters. What I think will be helpful to us and this country is that whenever you come across this kind of thing, kindly draw the attention of the commission, while the process is still ongoing and we would address it. That is one of the most effective ways of dealing with the problem. If it occurs during an election, please communicate with the commission so that during the process of election we can deal with it. It is against the laws of this country for any person below the age of 18 to vote. So, if they are voting by someone’s identity, then that is a different matter altogether. I think the best thing we can do is use them as examples. So, when you see this kind of infraction, while elections are ongoing, draw our attention to it, and we would move in and address it. But as a matter of principle, the commission does not register underage voters. We do not encourage the violation of our laws and voting by citizens below the age of 18 is a violation of our laws.

We have recently talked about the electronic transmission of results, when are we going to get to the stage of electronic voting?

Electronic voting will cut out so many things like the hiring of vehicles, and printing of ballot papers therefore, when can we do electronic voting? There are several conditions attached to electronic voting, the balloting you are talking about is the last step. And what are these whole steps? The first one is to have a credible biometric register of voters. Those of you who are as old as I am, or older than I am, must have experienced this in Nigeria. Until 2010, when the commission did biometric registration, for every general election, people were required to go and register afresh to vote at the elections. But in 2010, the commission introduced the biometric register that does not require anybody that had registered earlier to re-register. For instance, continuous voter registration is only open to those who turned 18 years within the period, as well as citizens who could not register in the previous exercise. So, we have a biometric register and we are cleaning it up, this is the first step. The second step is to have a biometric accreditation of voters and this is what the country has been experiencing since 2015 all through subsequent elections initially with smart card readers and now with BIAS, so, we are doing electronic accreditation. The third step is the electronic transmission of results and we have started using the portal, now supported by law. It is when you get the three processes right, then I have simply answered your question, we are almost there and we would get there. But there are steps we must take to get there.

We saw in the Ekiti and Osun governorship elections where vote-buying became a disturbing issue, don’t you think it will rubbish the gains made so far in the electoral processes?
I think this has been corrected, the election cannot be better than the environment in which it was conducted because there was a country we went to and we asked the question deliberately. At a polling unit in Berlin, I asked the equivalent of a presiding officer, what if a ballot box is snatched here, he looked at me for a moment and I repeated the question, then he called another official, and they whispered to each other. They did not understand what I was talking about. So, he provided a lengthy explanation of how the collation of results is done after elections. He said, if he has a car, he would take the ballot box to the collation centre or that he would have to call a taxi and pay from his allowance, or he can stop any policeman on patrol, and send it through him for free. But that was not the question I asked. But that does not mean that they didn’t experience that in their history. The history of the British is replete with vote-buying. So, the quality of the election is a direct reflection of the environment. But it is also a scenario of chicken and egg, the environment would not change until we have quality elections that produce quality leaders. If people have confidence in the process, why should they go and buy votes? What they think is that there is a reward at the end of it and when they don’t see the reward at the end of it, they wouldn’t bother to go and pay anybody to go and vote for them. So, it is the environment that I was emphasising rather than the politicians. But now that we have vote-buying, how do we deal with it? There are some ways in which we can deal with it, the electoral commission has a part to play and we all have a part to play. We did two things, one, we talked about the configuration of the polling unit, let us change the administration such that it will not be easy for people who make their choices in the cubicle to expose their marked ballot papers before they drop them into the ballot boxes. But remember that the law says that we have to do an open secret ballot. They choose secret but they have to drop the ballot paper into the ballot boxes in the open. Some of you here may recall that in 1979 and 1983 we had envelopes, the ballot paper was put in an envelope before it is dropped into the ballot boxes. We toiled with the idea but the implication is that we have to have much bigger ballot boxes that will take the envelopes and the ballot papers and then it goes back to the question asked by the moderator, when we submit the bill to the National Assembly, Nigerians will say INEC again? So, we did that but when we tried this in the Ekiti governorship election in 2018, we saw some people move with their smartphones into the voting cubicles after they mark the ballot papers, they snap the pictures, and then drop the ballot paper innocently and disappear. Then we introduced a ban, not only on the use of mobile phones but photographic devices, while the voters are in the cubicles making their choices not in the general area of polling because we also need feedback from citizens and they cannot give us feedback when they have no access to their smartphones to take pictures and record videos. This is what the commission had done. But I am sure that there are so many things that we can also do but one of the things, I always like with this kind of interaction is that you are also, citizens in your rights. Sometimes, you see an infraction and you will say to yourself, how I wish I can speak to the INEC chairman to suggest how this tide can be stemmed. I am here, so if you have suggestions, please, let me know so we can take it forward in improving the process. One thing that surprised me, happened in the United States, we went to one of their polling units during their mid-term elections, and we discovered to our surprise that mobile phones were not allowed into the polling unit. But at the end of the day, what will help us is the enforcement of the rules. I recall what one journalist did in South Africa, he wanted to disparage the electoral commission, and you know in their case, you can vote in any part of the country, not the polling unit where you register as is the case in Nigeria under the law. So, he voted, quickly went home, and washed off the ink in his fingers, I hope the idea was to say that the electoral umpire procured substandard indelible inks. So, he washed his fingers, went and voted again, washed his finger and went and voted for the third time, then he posted it online, and said, the quality of ink used by the electoral commission was substandard. I voted more than once and at the end of the day, he went to jail. He said he only wanted to draw attention to the problem of the system but the state said, you cannot draw attention by violating the law. So, the more we try to improve the system the more some people also try to find ways to beat the system. This whole idea of vote buying is a result of improvement in the system, if you give people money at home, it is not a guarantee that they will vote for you. It is becoming increasingly difficult to snatch ballot boxes in Nigeria or hijack result sheets, so what you do to be sure that someone has voted for you is to go to the polling unit with the money, and even at that you have to be sure that the person has voted for you before you pay. So the more we improve the system the more they attempt to subvert it but I am optimistic that we shall overcome it one day.

 

 

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