NBA’s Long Road To Electronic Voting Without Controversies
Posted: 06/Aug/2020

When the Nigerian Bar Association adopted electronic voting in the election of its national officers in 2016, it was with the hope that e-voting would eliminate real or perceived manipulation that had dogged its previous elections and finally keep at bay attendant controversies.  The 27th President of the NBA, Mr Augustine Alegeh (SAN), who moved the association from manual to electronic voting, even said he believed that the NBA would eventually create a model which the Independent National Electoral Commission can copy to conduct Nigeria’s general elections. But this year’s is NBA’s third attempt at e-voting and the allegations of foul play and rigging are still as strident as in the past.

In 2016, the election was between Chief Joe-Kyari Gadzama (SAN) and Mr Abubakar Mahmoud (SAN) and it ended in controversies that culminated in a lawsuit, calling for its cancellation over alleged rigging.

The then Electoral Committee of the NBA headed by Mr Ken Mozia (SAN) had declared Mahmoud winner with 3,055 votes.

But in rejecting the result, Gadzama had contended that as opposed to 2,384 votes declared for him, he actually polled 2,963 votes, while Mahmoud, who was declared winner by the ECNBA, got only 2,465 votes instead of the 3,055 recorded for him.

Gadzama went to court. Notwithstanding his protest, however, Mahmoud was sworn in as NBA’s 28th President.

By the time Mahmoud served out his two-year tenure in 2018, Gadzama’s suit seeking to remove him from office was still pending in court, undecided.

The suit effectively became academic when Mahmoud handed over to Mr Paul Usoro (SAN), who was declared winner of the NBA’s 2018 presidential poll.

Like in the case of Mahmoud, Usoro was sworn in amidst agitation for the cancellation of the election that declared him winner.

In the election conducted by the Prof. Auwalu Yadudu (SAN)-led ECNBA, Usoro had slugged it out with the duo of Chief Arthur Okafor (SAN) and Prof. Ernest Ojukwu (SAN).

At the end of the process, which was NBA’s second attempt at e-voting, Usoro was declared winner with 4,509 votes over Okafor and Ojukwu, who recorded 4,423 and 3,313 votes, respectively.

Both Okafor and Ojukwu rejected the result.

In the “Preliminary Release on Irregularities Identified in the Just Concluded NBA Elections,” put together by his team, Okafor described the 2018 NBA poll as “the biggest embarrassment and robbery,” in the association’s electoral history.

“The first danger signal that there was a deliberate attempt to rig this election came when we discovered that close to 4,000 names and telephone numbers assigned to them were not the same owners but belonged to other persons,” the Okafor team claimed.

According to the team, there was an instance when the telephone number of a particular lawyer “was repeated as the valid telephone number of 41 other lawyers,” while it was 15 names to one phone number in another instance.

Ojukwu, on his part, alleged that the system was corrupted with financial inducement and stealing of data to edge him out.

In a message to his supporters, Ojukwu said, “Though a winner has emerged from this present contest, we remember that we contested against corruption, massive vote-buying, vote capture, rigging, and a skewed process. These reasons make a challenge of the result important, but because of my long and selfless commitment to regenerating the Bar and the need not to create tension in our legal profession, I shall not contest it.”

A former Chairman of the National Human Rights Commission, Prof. Chidi Odinkalu, who has over the years positioned himself as a watchdog on the NBA elections, pronounced the 2018 exercise as “a racket.”

“This was not an election. It was not even a selection. It was a racket and a messed-up one at that…This racket is a disgrace. The process was compromised and did not even pretend about it. The outcome lacks legitimacy and the declared winner has procured a compromised non-mandate,” Odinkalu declared.

However, unlike in the case of Mahmoud, Usoro’s victory was not challenged in court.

But the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission in June this year filed cybercrime charges against two lawyers alleged to have rigged the 2018 election in Usoro’s favour.

In the charges signed by its prosecutor, Rotimi Oyedepo, the EFCC alleged that the defendants – John Demide and Sarah Ajibola – altered the email addresses and phone numbers of 1004 eligible voters and fraudulently used their Supreme Court Enrolment Numbers to vote “with the intent of gaining electoral advantage in favour of Mr Paul Usoro”.

If there was any hope that this year’s NBA election would be rancour-free, particularly because the election platform was open to all lawyers to enable them to monitor voting real-time, the hope was eventually dashed.

In what was generally declared as a major upset, Mr Olumide Akpata, a 47-year-old non-SAN, trumped two Senior Advocates of Nigeria, including an anointed candidate of the South-West Lawyers’ Forum, popularly known as Egbe Amofin.

At the end of the poll on July 30, the Chief Tawo Tawo-led ECNBA declared Akpata-winner with 9,891 votes.

The ECNBA declared that Akpata’s contenders, Dr Babatunde Ajibade (SAN) and Mr Dele Adesina (SAN), scored 4,328 and 3,982 votes, respectively.

But the election had not even ended on July 30, when Adesina, who was backed by Egbe Amofin, called for its cancellation on grounds of manipulation.

His call was ignored and Akpata was declared winner and presented with certificate of return.

Ajibade accepted the result and congratulated Akpata. But not backing down, Adesina petitioned the Dr Olisa Agbakoba (SAN)-chaired NBA Board of Trustees, calling for the annulment of the election and the conduct of a fresh one.

Adesina, in his petition, alleged that the NBA’s third electronic election was “riddled with electronic fraud where the server used for the election was loaded with predetermined data.”

He said, “Our ICT consultants informed us that though the voting site might have appeared credible on the surface as a decoy, it is apparent to state that the data uploaded to the site was programmed and pre-configured to achieve a premeditated result in an obvious case of data diddling.

“Right from the outset of the election and up till the end of same, all the candidates virtually maintained the same percentage of votes relative to each other and the total votes cast.

“A close examination of the recorded result at different timelines shows percentage movement of the presidential candidates as 54, 23 and 21 with little or no variation. The system was obviously programmed to distribute votes at either +1 or -1 throughout the 24-hour period.”

In identifying with Adesina’s contention, the Egbe Amofin also issued a communiqué, alleging that 4,000 ‘ghost voters’ were smuggled into the voters’ register, a situation it described as a “miracle” never witnessed before in NBA’s electoral history.

In the August 1, 2020 communiqué signed by the Chairman of its Steering Committee, Chief Niyi Akintola (SAN), and Secretary, Dr Oluwole Akintayo, Egbe Amofin called for an investigation with a view to establishing a case of cybercrime.

It said not even INEC, with all its failings, would have declared anyone winner in such an election.

“The Egbe Amofin passionately pleads and calls on the leaders of the NBA and critical stakeholders in the legal profession for immediate electoral reforms in order to bail out our great association,” the communiqué added.

The call this year by Egbe Amofin mirrored a call made by a former NBA President, Chief Wole Olanipekun (SAN), after the 2018 election of which Usoro was declared winner.

In a letter to Usoro, Olanipekun had urged him to take a cue from the late former President Umaru Yar’Adua, who declared that the 2007 presidential election that he won, was faulty and promised to strengthen the nation’s electoral process.

Olanipekun wrote to Usoro: “Be humble and manly enough to admit that the system that brought you to office was/is faulty, and say it loud and clear that through you, our association will never pass through that way or path again.

“Please, don’t mount any high horse! Very important. For the past three elections or so of the NBA Presidents, similar allegations, as are now being made and repeated against you, had dominated the Bar landscape and hemisphere. For God and goodness sake, put a halt to this mess!”

However, in an interview with our correspondent on Wednesday, Alegeh, who bequeathed e-voting to the NBA, reiterated his belief that the association was on course to giving INEC a model electronic election for the nation.

Alegeh argued that the progressive increase in the number of lawyers participating in NBA elections since 2016 was proof that the system was getting stronger..

He said, “When I was elected as President in 2014, the number of votes cast was less than 2,000. The next election, under electronic voting, we had between 6,000 and 7,000 people voting; the following one, we had about 12,000 people voting; and this year, we had about 29,000 eligible voters; maybe about 17,000 thereabouts voted.

“So, when you think of the first election under electronic voting, when we had only 6,000 voters, to the election now with 17,000 voters; you will see that things are improving. More people are participating in the process. All we need to continue doing is to make the process more user-friendly, more transparent, so that as we go along we will have a fortified and more reliable electoral process.”

Asked whether he believed that INEC was ripe to conduct electronic election in 2023, Alegeh said, “There is no reason they cannot, if they want to. But like I keep saying, you must put your mind to anything you want to achieve, not just wishful thinking.

“Electronic voting is the way to go. There is no ballot box to snatch; every man will vote from the confines of his home. All the money we waste in the movement of sensitive election materials, payment to youth corpers; payment for Electoral Officer 1, Electoral Officer 2; Presiding Officer, all those will be eliminated.”