Since 2015, technology has helped consolidate Nigerian democracy by ensuring transparency and fairness in elections. Yet, writes Muhammad Edita, in Nigeria's most recent elections, the malfunctioning or manipulation of technology has – paradoxically – led to defeated parties challenging electoral results
Democracy returned to Nigeria in 1999. Since then, many Nigerians have hoped to achieve democratic consolidation through credible elections. Prior to 1999, the military junta had frequently intervened in Nigerians' democratic experience. The military justified its actions by claiming that democracy had failed.
Most of these failures were caused by electoral imperfections. Parties in power often controlled the electoral machinery, including the appointment of electoral officers. Opposition political parties tended to see this as enabling the government to manipulate the electoral process. In the past, electoral results had to be transmitted manually. This left them wide open to rigging. Nigerians have therefore always seen electoral credibility as an important prerequisite for the smooth running of their system of governance.
Prior to the return of democracy to Nigeria in 1999, the military junta had frequently intervened in Nigerians' democratic experience
Back in 2003, the incumbent president Olusegun Obasanjo stood accused of using state power to manipulate the electoral process in his own favour. Five years later, during Nigeria's 2007 general elections, (and eight years after the return of democracy to the country), many Nigerians still suspected electoral manipulation by the state. Thus, they remained pessimistic about the likelihood of their country ever achieving fair, transparent elections.
Musa Umar Yara’dua emerged as the winner of the 2007 election, and became president. But after his victory, he claimed that there had been interference in the electoral process. Yara’dua's announcement weakened yet further Nigerians' faith in their country's democracy.
In response, in the run-up to the 2011 general election, the Independent National Electoral Commission made some non-technological changes. To render the electoral process more transparent, it required voters to become accredited before casting their vote. In that election, incumbent President Obelle Goodluck Jonathan was re-elected. This sparked some of the most violent protests since 1999. Clearly, the changes made by the Independent National Electoral Commission had had no effect.
Yet the Commission pressed on with efforts to achieve electoral integrity. For the 2015 general election, it implemented innovative Card Readers to scan voters' polling cards and assure their accreditation.
In 2015, after the introduction of digital polling card readers, the incumbent President was defeated for the first time in a Nigerian election
Nigerians greeted the outcome of the 2015 election with enthusiasm. All seemed credible and transparent. For the first time in Nigeria's democratic history, the incumbent President was defeated. There was a peaceful transition from one administration to another, with the incumbent President conceding defeat and congratulating the opposition-party winner.
The 2019 election was not completely free from flaws. Yet the card reader innovation meant that the majority of Nigerians accepted the result.
The Commission was spurred on by this success. In advance of the 2023 State and Presidential elections, it introduced yet more advanced technology. It replaced the card reader used in the 2015 and 2019 general elections with a Bimodal Voter Accreditation System, which electronically records all accredited voters. It also introduced a Commission Result Viewing Portal. Through this portal, voters could view election results instantly from the Commission’s server, thereby ensuring integrity and openness.
And yet, the two main defeated opposition parties – the People Democratic Party and the Labor Party – denounced the election result as 'daylight robbery'. They claimed the apparent irregularities in the electoral process were caused by this new technology. These opposition parties argued that such tech had aided the incumbent's victory, and that it therefore constituted a danger to Nigeria’s still-nascent democracy.
After the 2023 election, defeated opposition parties cried foul. As a result, Nigeria is likely to end up with an unnecessary and costly legal battle
The consequences of their protest remain, at this stage, unclear. However, Nigeria is likely to end up with an unnecessary and costly legal battle. This is certainly no good thing for Nigerian democracy.
Since 2015, voting-age Nigerians have generally accepted the use of technology in the electoral process. Contesting election results on the grounds of apparently malfunctioning or manipulated technology is, of course, not new – even in advanced democracies. And it could be that Nigerian politicians are learning from elsewhere. However, in Nigeria, it is very much a paradox that technology – the key element enhancing the transparency and acceptability of electoral results – is now being weaponised by defeated opposition parties to question the fairness of the electoral process itself.