With less than 24 hours to the 2020 Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, national elections scheduled to take place between July 29 and 30, The ICIR examines the likely blindspots that may compromise the transparency of the elections.
On July 6, the Electoral Committee of the NBA, ECNBA, released the list of 24 candidates who were cleared to contest for national leadership positions and rejected the nominations of 19 aspirants.
Now only three candidates are in the race to take over from Paul Usoro as the 35th president of Nigeria’s umbrella association of professional lawyers.
Two Senior Advocates of Nigeria, SAN, in the race includes Adesina Julius and Ajibade Babatunde who both have on their belt 38 and 31 years of legal practice respectively.
Olumide Akpata who is the younger of the other two candidates if elected would join the small league of previous NBA presidents without a SAN title.
The ECNBA is saddled with conducting free, fair and transparent elections into national leadership of the NBA. This includes verifying 39,291 eligible voters for one of the largest professional bodies in Africa with over 200,000 members.
As the 2020 contenders for President of the NBA jostle for votes from their colleagues alongside other contestants for national leadership positions, issues ranging from voter verification, missing names on the voters’ list, and an untested electronic voting portal threaten to scuttle the outcome of the elections.
Questions trail NBA’s voting portal
The electronic voting system was adopted by the NBA for electing its national leaders in July 2016, the e-voting solutions provider was Grace Infotech Limited which saw Abubakar Mahmoud defeat his rival, Joe-Kyari Gadzama.
The election was fraught with issues bordering on voters being disqualified by the online portal after changing voters’ passwords without their knowledge, voter inducement and rigging.
In February 2018, the Mahmoud’s -led NBA accepted the bid of CHAMS Plc, an integrated identity management company to conduct its 2018 NBA elections after questionable practices trailed the conduct of the 2016 NBA elections.
Paul Usoro, SAN had emerged the president of the NBA after he polled 4,509 votes to defeat his other contenders, Okafor Obi, and Ernest Ojuwkwu, who got 4, 423 and 3, 313 votes respectively.
Ojukwu contested the decision of the ECNBA at the Federal High Court in Lagos, saying the election was characterised with massive vote buying, vote capture, rigging, and a skewed process.
On July 22, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, charged two lawyers Sarah Ajibola, and John Demide, with 14 counts before the Federal High Court in Lagos State for manipulating the 2018 NBA election in favour of incumbent NBA President, Usoro.
They were accused of allegedly altering 1,004 eligible voters’ details and casting votes for Usoro by impersonating voters during the 2018 NBA elections.
The deadline line for verification of eligible voters for the 2020 NBA elections is July 28, but the administrator of the online portal is yet to be unveiled by the outgoing executive of the NBA.
Mojib Jimoh, Associate at Banwo & Ighodalo, a legal firm based in Lagos says he doubts the integrity of the e-voting system because the technology of the system could be manipulated by any side if the portal’s administrator was biased, or compromised.
“I think the NBA is not capable of running the e-voting process for electing its official executives because for over two elections it has been the same problems of vote tampering or one issue to another,” he said.
To cast a ballot, a potential voter is expected to input his details into the online portal for verification which involves uploading the voter’s supreme court enrollment number and an e-mail address for which a password will be sent to the voter’s email verifying the identity of the voter which determines his or her eligibility to vote.
“Two weeks ago after trying to get the verification process done for the election, I received an email a couple of days back informing me that I wasn’t verified.
“When I had attempted to get the verification two weeks ago, there was no sign there was a problem but after several weeks I was informed that I could not be verified and no reason was given. It’s a few days to the close of verification and I have to go back and start over again,” Jimoh said.
Jimoh still has no idea if he might get verified on time for the election before the close of the verification exercise.
Passwords generated by the portal for eligible voters from previous elections were changed without the consent of the voter, so the voter might have a legitimate password and be unable to vote which subjects the voting process to compromise by the administrators of the portal.
Unni Chioma Kate, Abuja-based lawyer and writer at TheNigerianLawyer, a legal Correspondence said: “The Nigerian lawyer
.believes the non-disclosure of the administrator of the online voting portal is to keep the process from external influence.
“I think that the NBA’s executives don’t want a repeat of what had happened with previous elections to occur which is why the administrator of the portal is being kept a secret.
“Though, with the election drawing closer, I think its time to disclose who is managing the e-voting process and educate voters so they might know what to expect on the election day for the sake of transparency and openness,” she said.
On duplicity of names on the voting register, Chioma says the verification process is expected to weed out names that do not have fictitious names to curtail multiple voting.
“Personally, it took me two days to get verified because after receiving the initial password generated by the online portal, I still had problems to log in despite getting a confirmation that I had been verified.
“Without a Supreme court enrollment number, there is no way the names on the voter’s register can be verified to cast their votes so the verification process is expected to handle that aspect,” she said.
Gaps in 2020 Voting Register
The NBA constitution mandates each state branch chairman to submit a list of members qualified to vote, and the compiled list from all state chapters makes up the voter’s register.
Voter eligibility is predicated upon fulfilling the condition of paying up-to-date membership dues; bar practice fees and branch dues at the various state bar chapters.
For the upcoming elections, a total of 39,321 names emerged from the 125 state branches in the country. But names that make up the final list of the voter’s register have come under scrutiny after suspicious names were identified.
Prince Adetosoye, Secretary of the Abuja NBA chapter, told said in an interview that the final voter’s list from the Abuja branch is erroneously represented in the general list.
Adetosoye revealed that the names of listed eligible voters from the Abuja chapter have been inflated and tampered with.
“In the Abuja branch, we forwarded about 2,133 names as duly registered members of the branch, who had paid their branch dues.
“More than 1,500 of those names were not included in the list of voters and yet the list was inflated, Abuja branch now has over 5000 names. We do not know where those names came from,” he said.
While speaking in an interview on the elections with ThisDay, Tawo Eja Tawo, SAN chairman of the ECNBA, explained that the adopted voter’s register for the forthcoming elections was harvested from a ‘Stamp and Seal’ list from the NBA national secretariat.
A Stamp and Seal is obtainable by lawyers from the NBA secretariat, having undergone a successful verification process conducted by various NBA state chapters.
According to Tawo, some NBA state branches had delayed submitting lists of eligible members and time constraints made it necessary to improvise.
“The rationale for the Stamp and Seal list is the assumption that to apply for a stamp, the member must have paid both the bar practising fees and branch dues.
“The stamp and seal list was obtained from the National Secretariat, bearing in mind the provisions of paragraph 2.3 (d). That was how we were able to get over 21,000 names, on the interim list,” he explained.
Paragraph 2.3 (d) of the NBA constitution says “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.”
But discrepancies have been identified on the list which now serves as the official voter’s register.
Augusta Yaakugh, member of the Publicity Committee and Human Rights Committee of NBA Abuja chapter noted that the irregularities in the voter’s register are likely to create room for rigging and cause disenfranchisement.
“For instance, there was an accredited voter on the list called “opening balance” whereas only 543 of 2,133 eligible voters were omitted from the list published by the ECNBA and the names substituted are unknown to the branch.
“Secondly, I have concerns about the slow pace of the verification of eligible voters. The process has been extended two times to accommodate the backlog,” she said.
According to Yaakugh, aside from the list being filled with fictitious names, a lot of members have begun losing hope in the electioneering process and not much is being done to calm their agitation.
“I fear that the system is already rigged to suit the candidate of the powers that be. This has been a major concern since the e-voting process was introduced and it continues to be,” she concluded.
Petition threatens NBA election
Four lawyers namely Ade Okeaya-Inneh, SAN, Ayuli Jemide, Vice-Chairman, NBA Section on Business Law, Chidi Odinkalu, Co-Convener, Open Bar Initiative, and Barbara Omosun had written to the ECNBA chairman, Tawo calling for a postponement of the elections.
They cited issues regarding the elections that were not yet addressed which include missing names on the voter’s list, verification, voter eligibility and transparent process for voting.
As part of their suggestions, they called on the ECNBA to consider cancelling the verification exercise as a part of the eligibility requirement, citing that the process is ‘semi-manual, cumbersome and responsible for disenfranchisement of thousands of voters.’
Sola Ajao, a lawyer with a private practice in Osogbo Osun state, also shares his doubts. He said that the shroud of secrecy around the online voting portal makes the election prone to manipulation.
“From the previous experience, there were unconfirmed reports that voters were disenfranchised for instance when some voters wanted to vote they discovered some people had voted on their behalf in the last elections.
“I could not vote during the last election because the congestion was something I could not bear though, I hope for improvement because the NBA is not immune from corruption which is why there should be no secrets with regards to the voting process if the election is going to be transparent,” he said.
Adesina Ogunlana was disqualified by the ECNBA from running as a presidential candidate at the NBA 2020 general elections.
He filed a suit at the Lagos High Court seeking an interlocutory injunction against the ECNBA to reinstate him as a presidential candidate in the forthcoming elections.
His suit might pose a setback to the commencement of the election if the court grants his request.
Reaching out to Tawo, the chairman of ECNBA to ascertain the transparent features of the online voting server and the modalities put in place to ensure the portal had a foolproof security system.
Calls to his mobile phones and text messages were unanswered but a WhatsApp message also sent to him indicated he had read the message but he has not replied as at the time of filing this report.
Tawo had revealed in an interview that Tavia Technologies Limited was involved with the online portal for the elections but was not involved in the election process.
An email to the ICT firm to understand its involvement in the elections and when the server was put in place also was not answered at the time of filing the report.