Yesterday I attended a presentation at the Woodrow Wilson Center by Professor Attahiru Jega, head of Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). Professor Jega assumed his post in 2010, served during the 2011 elections, and continues in the position.
Observers generally rated the 2011 elections much more favorably by outside observers than the 2007 elections, which domestic and international observers basically condemned. Prof. Jega’s personal reputation for integrity has contributed to a widely shared perception that Nigeria’s electoral system is headed in the right direction.
This is not to say that no one criticized the process in 2011 – skeptics pointed toward the post-election violence, which claimed some 800 lives, and the high margins incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan scored in the states of the Niger Delta, as evidence that the process remained flawed, both from a political standpoint and from the standpoint of the integrity of the results. The International Crisis Group gave the 2011 contest a mixed verdict (.pdf).
Now eyes turn toward 2015, the date of the next national elections. Prof. Jega’s presentation focused on the positive trend lines that he sees concerning the integrity of the 2015 contest, particularly with regard to logistical preparations and the role of technology. A series of “re-run” gubernatorial elections in 2011 and 2012, where states held new elections after courts overturned earlier results, has given INEC chances to improve its performance and test new techniques. INEC is planning to minimize problems in 2015 by registering voters over a longer time span and using new technologies, for example machines to read voter cards.
Prof. Jega’s emphasis on technology really struck me. Technology can offer a way out of difficult problems. For example, registering voters in an electronic database and recording biometric information can held reduce fraud. Yet a faith in technology can prove risky. One young man in the audience asked how card-reading machines would function if polling sites lost power (to which Prof. Jega replied that the machines’ battery life extends up to twelve or fourteen hours, longer than voting hours), raising the issue of how technological innovation might be vulnerable to infrastructural deficiencies. Or to outright thuggery, which was the young man’s next question – he asked about thugs stealing ballot boxes from polling stations. One answer to this, stated earlier in the presentation, is that the new forms for recording results bear special markings and features that will allow INEC officials to detect fraudulent forms, while other documents bear serial numbers, etc. One’s expectations for the integrity of the 2015 elections, then, must be partly tied to one’s expectations concerning the capacity of technological innovation to address Nigeria’s other challenges.
There is much to say about the politics of 2015, by which I mean the potential contestants and their struggles. INEC does not have much control over this, a point Prof. Jega acknowledged. For example, INEC does not run political parties’ primary elections. I think I, too, will leave the discussion of these political issues for another time. Suffice it to say that 2015 could be a tense election year, and so it is important to watch INEC’s preparations as it works to ensure that Nigeria is ready to run a logistically sound, free and fair election.