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Much ado about NBA’s e-voting

By Joseph Onyekwere, Assistant Editor, Law & Foreign Affairs
14 August 2018   |   4:20 am
These are not the best of times for the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA). Efforts to organize an electronic voting to elect new national officers have been anything but smooth.The situation is aggravated by the fact that its annual general conference, which happens to be the time for the national officers....

Abubakar Balarabe Mahmoud

These are not the best of times for the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA). Efforts to organize an electronic voting to elect new national officers have been anything but smooth.The situation is aggravated by the fact that its annual general conference, which happens to be the time for the national officers to hand over to the new leaders, is few weeks away. The conference is slated to hold between August 26 and 30.

The hiccups are indeed very worrisome, moreso when viewed from the prism of the provisions of the 2015 NBA Constitution.
Article 2.3 (d) of the Second Schedule to the 2015 NBA Constitution provides as follows:
“The full list of all legal practitioners qualified to vote shall be published by ECNBA in conjunction with the National Secretariat of the NBA at least twenty eight (28) days before the date of the election.” This provision has always been observed in breach due to the ad-hoc nature of preparations for the election and the 2018 election seems to worsen the situation and heighten the breach.

Although the disqualification of the immediate past general secretary of the association, Mazi Afam Osigwe and few others by the Electoral Committee of the NBA (ECNBA) stirred the hornets nest, it did not threaten the peace of the association that much as most ‘elders’ kept quiet, possibly to allow the sleeping dog lie.However, the real crisis started when a legal blog, reported that there was a cross directorships between one of the presidential candidates and Dr. (Mrs.) Josephine Awosika, Chairman of CHAMS Plc, then sole ICT Partner for the elections.

This report set off a chain of events, enquiries, and meetings, between NBA president, ECNBA, committee of past presidents and presidential candidates.Following those meeting, NBA issued a statement disaggregating the electoral process into verification, accreditation/voting and audit, with the three stages to be handled by three different ICT firms.

The statement by the NBA endorsed by its president, Abubakar Mahmoud (SAN) reads in part: “The consultative meetings and the review exercise nevertheless revealed that the voter verification process was unsatisfactory and in order to address this and perception problems which have been created, it was necessary to take measures to reinforce confidence in the electoral process.

“The following measures were accordingly resolved to be implemented: 1. The electoral processes shall be disaggregated into three (3) stages and each stage shall be handled by separate entities or service providers duly appointed by the ECNBA. The three stages are: a. pre-election: process of compilation and verification/validation of list of voters; b. election: the deployment of the e-voting platform for NBA elections; c. post-election: an audit of the electoral process.

“The ECNBA will undertake a holistic review of the voter verification process to ensure that all issues and complaints are satisfactorily resolved and may engage an independent entity or service provider for that purpose; the revalidated voter data shall be deployed on the electronic voting platform for the conduct of the 2018 NBA National Elections; and use of the validated voter data may be monitored by the ECNBA and representatives of the aspirants pre, during and post-elections.”

Immediate past president of the association, Augustine Alegeh (SAN) criticized this position. He told The Guardian that it was disingenuous to disaggregate the same election in such a manner.

According to him, disaggregating one election in such a way would create more confusion as there could be buck passing when technical issues arise on any segment of he process and none of the organizations would admit fault.“In which part of the world do four different bodies conduct election? One man will do verification, another accreditation and another the voting. Probably, another will do the counting of votes. Why? Election is a process! If the man doing accreditation does not know the basis for verification, it creates a big problem. Who takes responsibility if anything goes wrong?” he asked.

Still, the fears refused to die down as tension increased over alleged compromise of the process. Consequently, ECNBA succumbed to pressure and disengaged CHAMS. It hired CRENET Techlabs Limited for the job of doing fresh verification.However, the organistion has not found the process of verification of voters quite easy. It has battled to get that done that the dates have been changed on few occasions. They have had several challenges, having been brought in at the 11th hour. This has led to several postponements and shifts in deadline to end verification.

Even at that, many branches of the association are aggrieved that their members would be disenfranchised if the election were to go on because a substantial number of their members were unsuccessful in the verification exercise. They are threatening to take legal action should their members be denied the voting right.

While Lagos branch opened the floodgate f protest letters to the ECBNA, other branches such as Nnewi, Benin and Pankshin have fired protest letters to the electoral committee.ECNBA admitted it received various complaints over the inability of members to verify their names on the verification portal deployed by the service provider.

In response to the complaints, the ECNBA held series of consultations with different stakeholders to resolve the unfortunate difficulties. Against this backdrop, the Electoral Committee on August 6, 2018 modified the activities and adjusts the timelines for the 2018 Elections.It closed down its verification portal and shifted the e-voting earlier scheduled to commence 11:59 pm on August 6 to August 19 and 20, 2018.

The committee announced: “E-voting exercise earlier scheduled to commence at 11:59 p.m on the 6th August 2018 will no longer hold. Members who have successfully verified will be informed accordingly. They are advised not to seek to access the portal or change anything.“A redesigned and more user friendly verification portal with inbuilt security architectures to ensure a seamless verification of voters shall be in place and available as from 12:00 noon Wednesday, 8th August 2018 to 12:00 noon Saturday 11th August 2018. Members who have not been successfully verified are to update their email addresses, phone numbers, enrollment number (SCN) and names on the redesigned verification portal. No new names other than those contained in the published final Voters Register shall be verified on the new redesigned platform.

“Verification by proxy or impersonation of any kind shall not be allowed on the new verification portal as such activity shall be treated as a breach of the Rules of Professional Conduct. Reconciliation of the verified data shall take place from 12th to 15th August 2018. The final verified list will be published on the NBA website on the 16th August 2018. Election will hold from 19th to 20th of August 2018.

Further guidelines on the voting modalities shall be issued. The ECNBA apologizes to members for inconveniences experienced in the course of the verification exercise and solicits for the cooperation and understanding of members.”In the midst of the many verification troubles, a resignation letter purportedly written by the chairman of the electoral committee, Prof. Yadudu Auwalu surfaced in social media, with the scholar promptly denying the letter and describing it as the handiwork of detractors.

Meanwhile, the annual general conference of the association is slated to hold from August 26 to 30, 2018. The implication of this is that the body has just six days after its election to hold the conference.Instructively, it is at the conference that the new executives would be sworn in. This may likely be the shortest time in the history of the association between election and transition to new national leaders.

According to Alegeh, the noblest thing to do is to handover the association to a caretaker committee to oversee transparent and credible polls due to the exigency of time and the inherent challenges that have dogged the process.

While commending NBA for the electoral reforms it has wrought on the heels of this debacle and for opening up the process for interrogation by stakeholders, the time has come for NBA to take the issue of electronic voting more seriously and begin to put sustainable processes in place for smooth transition programmes.

According to Mr. Emeka Nwadioke, a member of the NBA Criminal Justice Reform Committee, the hiccups in the run-up to the elections are causing anxiety.He is of the opinion that the hurried nature of the exercise has made it extremely difficult for the electoral committee to stick to electoral guidelines and extant NBA laws. Referring to Article 2.3 (d) of the Second Schedule to the 2015 NBA Constitution, he asserted that the electoral committee in conjunction with the NBA secretariat were supposed to publish full list of all legal practitioners qualified to vote at least 28 days before the date of the election, noting that this provision has been observed in breach.

Washing its hands off the challenges of verification, CRENET in a press release absolved itself of blame in the verification hiccups.It explained: “In the last few days, we have been inundated by several misleading materials and statements which have been disseminated across various social media platforms, lawyer groups and circles by unknown persons, with respect to services being rendered by Crenet TechLabs Limited to the Election Committee of the Nigerian Bar Association (ECNBA), in connection with its proposed use of electronic voting in the 2018 Annual General NBA Elections.

“These materials attempt to imply, howbeit wrongly, that Crenet TechLabs Limited is responsible for the challenges being experienced by eligible voters with the accreditation process. Given the nature of these misleading materials, it has become necessary to issue this press release to address these issues.

“On 12th June, 2018 Crenet TechLabs Limited was invited to make a bid presentation to the ECNBA for the provision of technology services required for the Elections. In our bid presentation, we highlighted several potential issues and challenges that might arise and proposed various ways to mitigate these issues. A few weeks following our presentation, we became aware that a preferred vendor had been selected to provide the technological services for the Election end-to-end.

“We understand that the initial verification process application put in place by the preferred vendor had encountered some issues which generated a perception of data compromise. Following concerns about the integrity of the process and petitions from eligible voters, the ECNBA was compelled to make a decision to split the service process into three phases – Phase 1: Verification of Voters, Phase Two: Voting & Phase 3: Audit of Votes (together referred to as the “Election Exercise ”).

“Seven (7) days to the Elections (23rd of July, 2018), Crenet TechLabs Limited was again invited to proffer solutions to the pending challenges that threatened the integrity and credibility of the voter verification process. Based on the ECNBA’s request, we proposed certain technological solutions and were thereafter engaged by the ECNBA to specifically troubleshoot the voter’s verification process.”

The organization said notwithstanding this extremely tight timeline, they deployed their best resources and developed a verification application to aid the eligible voter identification process, while simultaneously attempting to rectify the additional data challenge created by the failure of the respective NBA branches to forward details of eligible voters in line with the format stipulated.

It explained further that in a bid to properly identify eligible voters without corresponding enrollment numbers, or other relevant detail, they were compelled to build an Artificial Intelligence (AI) solution, which assessed eligible voters using enrolment numbers across various NBA-based datasets.

“All of these corrective steps were achieved within the span of 5 – 6 days. It is imperative to point out that, although there have been several attempts by persons of shady character to hack our systems and create the impression that our system is unsecure, we have at all times intercepted and rebuffed such attacks and retained the security of the application.

“We would like to assure the voting legal community that our Application maintains its integrity. While there may still be a few challenges here and there, these challenges are challenges predominantly generated by third-party service providers to the ECNBA who are responsible for delivering emails and sms access codes to the eligible voters. We have decided to address this by procuring directly the services of premium vendors who we are confident can deliver on the Crenet TechLab Ltd/ECNBA’s mandate.

“We are consistently working with the teams involved in resolving issues such as missing information that have risen due to incorrect provision of data from the NBA branches. These issues are being addressed primarily by ECNBA with our full support.The first signs that this year’s NBA National Officers Elections will be keenly contested perhaps emerged at the National Executive Committee (NBA-NEC) meeting in Ilorin on March 1, 2018 when the composition of the ECNBA stoked controversy. This led to the replacement of Mr. Tobias Kekemeke with Prof. Augustine Agom as ECBNA member.

Following the inauguration of the electoral committee on March 12, 2018 by the NBA President, the ECNBA on April 19, 2018 issued its statutory guidelines and timetable for the elections.This led to a flurry of activities, including the filing of nominations and compilation of eligible voters register. Although the ECNBA did not publicly announce bidding for the choice of its ICT Partner, it chose CHAMS Plc and dumped Grace Infotech Limited that conducted the 2016 NBA National Officers Elections.

The verification exercise was slated to last between 10th and 15th July 2018 while the election was slated to hold between 23:59hours of Friday 27th to 23:59hours of Saturday 28th July, 2018 via e-voting.

According to a statement signed by Bolaji Agoro, secretary to ECNBA and dated August 11, 2018, the verification exercise, which commenced on August 8 ended successfully on 11th. He announced that the committee would proceed with the next stages of the election involving the collation and reconciliation of the verified list before its final publication on August 16. “In this regard, all outstanding issues relating to voters whose phone numbers or email addresses were either flagged or blocked shall be resolved during the reconciliation period,” the statement reads.From the foregoing, it is obvious that the calls for the set up of a caretaker committee are not an option for the leadership of the Bar at this time. However, the general acceptability of the outcome of the election would determine whether the process was worth the hassles at the end of it all.

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