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What other African elections tell us about Nigeria’s bet on biometrics

Two Nigerian voters pose for a photo with their newly acquired permanent voters card ahead of the March 28 presidential elections at INEC sub office in Ikeja, Lagos, Nigeria, February 10 2015. The Independent National Electoral Commision(INEC), postponed presidential election slated for 14 February to March 28. EPA/AHMED JALLANZO

The following guest post is by Giulia Piccolino, a post-doctoral research fellow at the German Institute of Global and Area Studies. See related posts on the upcoming Nigerian elections, part of our broader series of Monkey Cage Election Reports.

Nigeria, sub-Saharan Africa’s largest economy and home to almost 180 million people, will hold elections on March 28, a six-week delay after its initial date. While international commentators focus debate on the Boko Haram crisis and the risk of electoral violence, another novelty in this 2015 election has gone relatively overlooked: the use of new biometric voting technology.

[Nigeria war expands as Chad, Niger send troops to fight Boko Haram]

Every Nigerian voter is supposed to receive a permanent voter card, which stores biometric information such as fingerprints and facial image. At the polls, the voters will present their cards and a voter card reader will verify their name on the voter roll and the authenticity of the card.

Nigeria has used the Automated Fingerprint Identification System since the 2011 polls. But in 2011, the system only created a digital register to eliminate doubles from the list, and was not capable of verifying the identity of voters at the polling stations.  The INEC argues that these new features will bring additional benefits, especially in preventing double votes and ballot stuffing.

Nigeria is taking a risky bet, given that not many countries in sub-Saharan Africa have employed biometrics to verify voters’ identity on election day. In 2012, Ghana implemented an even more sophisticated system, where polling stations were equipped with fingerprint scanners. Kenya tried to do the same in 2013, but the result was a spectacular fiasco. The voter population that Nigeria must manage is much larger than the one in Ghana; moreover, Ghana’s Electoral Commission is known for its strength, professionalism and integrity.

The more general use of biometrics in African elections is on the rise. No fewer than 25 sub-Saharan African countries (including the non-recognized state of Somaliland) have already held elections employing a biometric voter register. And other countries are currently planning to do so.

Biometric technology is costly. In Côte d’Ivoire, the French enterprise SAGEM received $266 million for the production of biometric identity cards for the 2010 elections. Côte d’Ivoire’s voting population is fewer than 6 million people, meaning the cost of a biometric identity card was more than $44 per voter. Biometric technology and associated equipment have absorbed the largest share of the cost of elections in numerous countries. The financial burden has fallen on the shoulders of African governments and donors, and has enriched the oligopolistic identification technology market.

A recurrent argument for introducing biometrics is that it would not only reduce fraud and make elections ‘cleaner,’ but it would also make contested election results and electoral violence less likely. But is that really true?

Political scientists have only recently begun to look at the technical and administrative dimension of elections. Because in the West, the consolidation of the administrative apparatus of the state preceded the introduction of democracy, many there take for granted the existence of systems that register and identify citizens, upon which electoral management bodies can rely. This assumption is wrong for most African states: a large share of the population in these countries is not even registered at birth.

A recent report by the Electoral Integrity Project found voter registration the third most problematic component of the electoral process worldwide. Almost every African election is accompanied by polemics about the reliability of the voter register, allegations of double voting and votes by minors and foreigners. It’s no wonder electoral commissions are looking for ways to address these concerns. However, the faith currently placed in technology could be misplaced. The introduction of high tech solutions can indeed help with some problems, such as double registration and double voting. But technology offers no solution for other issues and can even generate new problems.

In my research on three West African countries – Benin, Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana – I have found mixed evidence for the claim that biometric technology will stop losing parties (and their supporters) from contesting electoral results. While reforms in the voter registration and identification system are intended to address the lack of trust among political parties, very often this same lack of trust ends up affecting the process of creating a new voter register and implementing a new identification system.

In Ghana, biometrics were important in restoring the public’s confidence in the electoral process after the controversial 2008 elections. However, when they were first used in 2012, the Electoral Commission had to extend voting by one day following the failure of some verification machines. Researchers have found that voting machine breakdowns had suspicious patterns.  Biometrics did not prevent the losing New Patriotic Party from contesting, albeit peacefully, the election’s results.

In Côte d’Ivoire the employment of biometrics, coupled with more stringent administrative requirements to prove one’s nationality, appeared necessary to address a long war of ‘who is who’ about citizenship and voting rights. However, these changes in voting requirements did not prevent incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo from refusing to recognize the electoral results, and the country relapsed into violence. My research also documents how the insistence on verifying voters’ nationality in the 2010 elections ultimately led to the exclusion of many voters from the register.

In Benin, the new voter registration system has become a battlefield between the majority and opposition, and difficulties are still ongoing as the voter roll is corrected. (The most up-to-date source is the Facebook page of the Benin agency in charge of correcting the voter roll.)

The negative side effects of the ‘high tech’ approach to voter registration and identification are visible in Nigeria even before voting has begun. One reason given for delaying the polls was that about one-third of registered voters had not received their voter cards by the week before the election was to take place. The ruling People’s Democratic Party expressed concerns the voter card readers would fail to work properly, certainly possible in a country with frequent power cuts and poor roads.

Elections can be negatively affected by a state’s weak administrative capacities. But they can also work as a stimulus in contemporary African states. While I am not suggesting that biometric technologies in elections should be abandoned, African governments and donors should stop looking at technology as the best bet for improving electoral integrity.