INSIGHT: NBA’s Troubled 2018 Elections
By Our Correspondent
The first signs that this year’s Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) National Officers Elections will be keenly contested emerged at the National Executive Committee (NBA-NEC) meeting in Ilorin on March 1, 2018 when the composition of the Electoral Committee of the NBA (ECNBA) stoked a fierce controversy. This ultimately led to the replacement of Mr. Tobias Kekemeke with Prof. Augustine Agom.
Following the inauguration of the electoral committee on March 12, 2018 by the NBA President, Mr. Abubakar Mahmoud SAN, the ECNBA on April 19, 2018 issued its statutory guidelines and time table for the NBA 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 any bidding process for the choice of its ICT Partner, a role played by Grace Infotech Limited (owners of the Law Pavillion trade mark) during the 2016 NBA National Officers Elections, eligible voters however became aware of the appointment of CHAMS Plc as the ICT Partner through a notice signed by ECNBA Secretary, Mr. Bolaji Agoro requesting them to “revert all complaints to email@example.com should there be any.” The verification exercise was scheduled to last “between 10th and 15th July 2018” while the election which was “slated to hold between 23:59hours of Friday 27th to 23:59hours of Saturday 28th July, 2018 shall be via an E- voting.”
However, given the sensitive nature of the role of the ICT Partner in delivering credible and rancour-free elections, a CITY LAWYER exclusive report on July 12, 2018 indicated that the Chairman of CHAMS Plc is a co-director with one of the leading presidential candidates. This generated a lot of concerns in the legal industry, leading ultimately to a flurry of meetings especially on July 19 and the convening of a meeting of the Committee of Past NBA Presidents and Secretaries on July 20, 2018.
Giving more insights into the review process, Mahmoud said in a statement dated July 21, 2018: “The review took place at the NBA National Secretariat in the course of the last two (2) days (Thursday 19 and Friday 20 July 2018) and all relevant stakeholders were invited including the candidates, their technical advisers and some of our members who have raised these concerns or made allegations.
“The review process was conducted openly with the Electoral Committee of the NBA (ECNBA) in the presence of National Officers, the Presidential Candidates and some other Candidates, their IT experts and technical advisers and other stakeholders. The electronic (e-)voting platform service provider; Chams Plc., the independent ICT Adviser to the ECNBA and other observers were also present.
“The process involved; an extensive review of the selection of the e-voting service provider, modalities for the NBA Elections, technical presentations on the e-voting platform to be deployed including its security architecture and deliberations on the alleged relationship between the e-voting service provider and one of the Candidates.”
On the resolutions reached at the meeting, it emerged that NBA had initiated extensive electoral reforms following the dis-aggregation of the electoral process among other decisions. Fundamentally, the meeting resolved as follows: “The cross board membership of the current chairman of board of the e- voting platform service provider (Chams Plc.) and an aspirant for the office of NBA President did not constitute any material conflict of interest that would affect the credibility of the electronic voting process or the outcome of the elections.
“The allegation that the e-voting service provider had conducted a flawed election for a similar professional association, ICAN was satisfactorily explained as the service provider has continued to conduct elections for that association subsequent to those issues;
“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:
“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.
“The current e-voting service provider appointed by the ECNBA; Chams Plc. shall be limited to the deployment of the e-voting platform for NBA elections, which it has already developed and is ready to deploy;
“The ECNBA will develop a post-election audit framework and process and may engage an independent entity for that purpose;
“The ECNBA will ensure that an appropriate review of the integrity of the election portal or voting platform is undertaken and all necessary steps taken to reinforce the security and integrity of the portal/platform and the relevant applications;
“The ECNBA will ensure that the candidates and their technical representatives are given appropriate access to all processes and given opportunity to make inputs/observations at all stages of the process.”
The statement further mandated the ECNBA to “review the election time table and make appropriate adjustments, ensuring that elections are conducted not later than Tuesday 31 July 2018 as provided for in the NBA Constitution.” This may not be unconnected with Article 2.3(a) of the Second Schedule to the 2015 NBA Constitution which provides that “Election of National Officers shall be held in the month of July of the election year of the Association or at such time and place as may be ratified by National Executive Committee.”
Based on the above resolutions, and having cancelled the controversial verification exercise carried out by CHAMS Plc, the ECNBA promptly hired CRENET TechLabs Limited to conduct a fresh verification exercise. It was resolved that CRENET will “clean up” the voters’ register by extracting profiles of eligible voters from both the Supreme Court Roll and the stamp register. “Verification and data upgrade of voters shall take place on Thursday 26th, Friday 27th and Saturday 28th July, 2018,” ECNBA then announced. The modified time-table dated July 23, 2018 and signed by Agoro also read: “For effective check and balance and credibility of the election, the electoral processes of pre-election, election and post-election shall be disaggregated and handled by separate entities.”
The notice also stated thus: “Accreditation of voters will take place between 10:00 hour of Sunday 29th to 10:00 hour of Monday 30th July, 2018. Voting will take place between 11:59am on Monday, 30th and end at the hour of 11:59am on Tuesday 31st July, 2018. Announcement of elections results shall be on Tuesday, 31st July, 2018 after the final collation of votes cast.”
Following the inability of CRENET to complete the clean-up of the register, the verification exercise was again shifted to Friday 27th, Saturday 28th and Sunday 29th July, 2018. No dates were stated for accreditation and voting. This may not be unconnected with the need to get the nod of the NBA leadership, given the constitutional provision on the holding of the election in July.
Again, the verification exercise was shifted as follows through another ECNBA notice:
1. The Election process will commence with verification exercise on Tuesday 31st July 2018;
2. The verification portal will be deployed latest by 8:00pm on Tuesday 31st July;
3. A call center to provide assistance to members who may have challenges with the verification exercise and subsequently the voting exercise will be ready and deployed by Tuesday 12.00noon. The details including the telephone numbers will be issued;
4. Verification will end at 10.00am on Thursday 2nd August, 2018;
5. The formal transfer of the verified data to the e-portal service provider will take place on Thursday 2nd August;
6. Accreditation and voting will commence by 10:00 pm on Thursday 2nd August and end Saturday 10:00am 4th August 2018 with results being announced immediately afterwards.
The verification exercise ultimately kicked off on July 31, almost one week after its originally scheduled take-off date.
However, no sooner had the exercise started than it witnessed a surfeit of challenges. Not only did the electoral committee issue a wrong verification web address, CITY LAWYER observed that the highly sensitive website was not secure, given that it had a “http” prefix as against the conventional “https” prefix. Given that this lasted for about 24 hours before the change was effected to an “https” enabled server, it remains to be seen to what extent eligible voters’ data was compromised.
It also became apparent that, with the plethora of challenges confronting the exercise and the negligible number of eligible voters captured prior to the deadline, another extension was inevitable. Again, the ECNBA rolled out an extension notice, extending the exercise. CITY LAWYER investigation showed that some of the hurdles that hobbled the exercise included non-delivery of Access Codes to voters via email and SMS; short life-span of Access Codes; unmanned call centre/help desk for members to report challenges, missing profiles from the database, and poor functionality of the verification portal.
The ECNBA then stated: “Having carefully reviewed the current situation and given the complaints and queries that need to be addressed, the ECNBA considers it necessary to further review the timelines as follows: The verification portal shall remain open until 10.00am on Sunday 5th August 2018; the accreditation and e-voting will commence at 11.59 pm Monday, 6th August 2018 and end at 11.59 pm on Wednesday, 8th August, 2018.”
Although the ECNBA had assured that it was “working with the Service provider to further improve the functionality of the portal and we are also working with the Bar Services Department to ensure all queries and issues are addressed and no registered voter will be disenfranchised,” there was palpable discontent in the legal community regarding the manner in which the verification exercise had been carried out. Also, there were strong indications that barely a few hours to the end of the exercise, less than 30 per cent of eligible voters may have been captured, thereby again necessitating another shift.
Several NBA branches were up in arms threatening to take action to protect their eligible members from being disenfranchised. While Lagos Branch opened the floodgate of protest letters to the ECNBA, other branches soon followed. At the last count, over 15 branches may have written to the electoral committee on the pressing need to again extend the exercise.
Throwing some light on the challenges confronting the exercise, CRENET in a statement washed its hands off any liability for the chaos that had attended the exercise. Noting that the verification exercise by CHAMS “generated a perception of data compromise,” CRENET said: “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”). The tech company said that though it had made a pitch to the ECNBA since Jun 12, 2018 it was not until July 23, 2018 that it was invited to proffer solutions to the challenges.
“Notwithstanding this extremely tight timeline,” CRENET said, “we deployed our 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.”
CRENET also revealed that hackers have been taking shots at the verification portal, noting 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.” There was no independent confirmation of this claim at press time. CRENET however cited third-party service providers to the ECNBA who are responsible for delivering emails and sms access codes to the eligible voters as “predominantly” generating the challenges.
With the surfeit of challenges and the huge number of eligible voters yet to be captured, it did not come to many stakeholders as a surprise when the electoral committee suspended the verification process and directed CRENET to develop an application that would enable eligible voters to manually input their data on the portal. After a series of meetings with stakeholders, the ECNBA stated: “In the last couple of days, the Electoral Committee Nigerian Bar Association (ECNBA) 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.
“It is against this backdrop that the Committee deemed it necessary to modify the activities and adjust the timelines for the 2018 NBA National Officers Elections as follows:
1. The verification portal (www.nbaelectionverification.org.ng) shall be closed immediately and no longer be available for members to access.
2. E-voting exercise earlier scheduled to commence at 11:59 p.m on the 6th August 2018 will no longer hold.
3. Members who have successfully verified will be informed accordingly. They are advised not to seek to access the portal or change anything.
4. 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.
5. 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.
6. No new names other than those contained in the published final Voters Register shall be verified on the new redesigned platform.
7. 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.
8. Reconciliation of the verified data shall take place from 12th to 15th August 2018.
9. The final verified list will be published on the NBA website on the 16th August 2018.
10. Election will hold from 19th to 20th of August 2018.
11. 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.” The new portal was flagged off on schedule by 12 noon on Wednesday, with many lawyers stating that the new portal is more user-friendly. This has tended to douse the distress that eligible voters were subjected to before now.
However, the current model is more prone to manipulation, even as CRENET and the committee plan to audit the uploaded data towards detecting any misfeasance.
Indeed, there are strong indications that some stakeholders are bent on manipulating the electoral process. It is recalled that a fake website http://baicai24.site/ had emerged alongside the genuine version. The website was promptly pulled down when legal blogs turned a searchlight on it. It is unclear at press time when an investigation has been launched to identify those behind the fake website. Meanwhile, against the backdrop of the challenges wrought by the verification exercise, several campaign teams have been actively harvesting eligible voters’ data. It is left to be seen to what use they are going to put such lists.
Also, aside from the controversial disqualification of former NBA General Secretary, Mr. Afam Osigwe, the purported resignation of ECNBA Chairman, Prof. Auwalu Yadudu also raised the barometer of the controversial elections.
Meanwhile, a group known as “Concerned Members of the Bar” and spearheaded by former Chairman of the National Human Rights Commission, Prof. Chidi Odinkalu has petitioned the Attorney-General of the Federation, Mr. Abubakar Malami SAN among other key Bar leaders, asking him to invoke Section 6(2) of the NBA Constitution to enable the General Council of the Bar take over the running of the NBA prior to the conduct of the elections.
But in a counter move, another group called the “Progressive members of the Nigerian Bar Association” has also written to Attorney-General lampooning the position of the Concerned Members of the Bar.
With the campaigns at fever pitch and each candidate trying to outdo the other, the stage is now set for an epic climax of the 2018 NBA Elections.
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