Not a few persons are aware of the maxim that “the pen is mightier than the sword”. This quote has been used repeatedly in speeches, articles and books. What quite a few persons know is the existence of a related quote by America’s Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln looked at the democratic process and concluded that “The ballot is stronger than the bullet.” Although in literal terms, it is incredulous that paper could be more potent than solid lead, developed democracies have realised that a trusted ballot system not only enables citizen participation but also enables structures for development.
When the UK’s prime minister, Theresa May, called for a snap election in April, with the intention of “getting a stronger hand” for the coming Brexit negotiations, I found it interesting that elections could be triggered at the snap of her fingers. Then I learned that as a Nigerian, one perk of past exploitation by colonial Britain is the ability to vote in the UK’s elections if resident in the UK at the time of the elections. So, I decided to register for the election, hoping to learn a few things about the British electoral system.
To start with, the registration process was nothing like what attains in Nigeria. In January 2011, when I registered to vote in Nigeria, I recall standing in a queue under the unforgiving Nigerian sun. After my details were captured, I was issued a “temporary voter’s card”, basically an ID card-sized piece of paper with my personal details and polling station information. Compare this with the UK, where I only needed to visit a website and fill a few pages of forms. I got an immediate confirmation email and some days later, a poll card was mailed to my residence. Could life be any simpler?
In Nigeria, election days are effectively public holidays with an added stipulation that restricts movement throughout the day. During the 2011 and 2015 elections, I went to my polling station before the 8am official commencement time. In both instances, the electoral officials were unavailable for a considerable amount of time, with voting materials arriving much after 8am. The normal procedure is that voters’ accreditation runs from 8am until about noon or 1pm, after which voting starts and runs until 4pm, with the caveat that both accreditation and voting can be extended until the last person on the queue before the respective end times is accredited or has voted as the case may be. In addition, in both elections, seeing that electoral officials had challenges with controlling the crowd to stand in ordered queues, I helped to enforce queues by basically “pretending” to be an official with legal standing to send defaulters back. Projecting a tough face also came in handy.
Compare the Nigerian system with the UK where polls run from 7am to 10pm and no businesses nor roads are shut for the entire day. Voters are free to choose any time in the day to go cast their ballot and return to their normal activities. On the election day, 8 June 2017, I left my residence around 11am and walked about three minutes to my assigned polling station. There was no queue, just two persons ahead of me, although it is possible for queues to form in some stations if many persons arrive at the same time. After presenting my polling card, which is not a compulsory requirement, the official found my name on the register, drew a line next to it, then issued me with a ballot paper. All that was left was for me to walk to the semi-enclosed booth, take a pencil, draw an “X” for my choice, put the ballot in the box and walk out. Total time spent there: under three minutes.
As I walked back home, I wondered when Nigeria would leave the backwaters of underdevelopment and violent, cash-heavy elections for the 21st century systems in developed countries. I quickly realised we lack one vital requirement for such a hassle-free voting system—a trusted national database. Without this, there is very little that would work in Nigeria. Even things like online banking and online shopping would benefit from having a database of who is who and lives where in Nigeria. I could register for the UK’s election via a website because the website can crosscheck my data with existing UK government data. Hence, there was no need for me to physically visit any office to get my data collected. However, in Nigeria, the banking system, electoral body, immigrations, driver licencing, tax agencies, all collect data separately. There is hardly any sharing of the collected data, maybe because sharing data would block contracts for purchasing data capture equipment for duplicitous agencies. If I have registered for the Bank Verification Number (BVN) and had my information taken, why do I have to give my data again to the road safety commission, when in theory, with my BVN, they can get all my details from the banking database? In fact, allowing multiple data collection enables Nigerians to supply different data to different agencies.
The benefits of having a credible national database are multi-fold. The UK government does not need to shut down roads and businesses, nor worry about people voting in more than one location since it knows who is supposed to vote in which polling station. While UK voters are allowed to register in more than one constituency, they can only vote in one station, whether by physically coming on election day, posting their ballot before the day or appointing a proxy to vote for them. With some exceptions, the national voters’ database is online, providing some credibility cover as any interested person can decide to investigate some names if so desired. This helps ensure that elections are not just “free and fair”, but are seen as “free and fair”.
In writing this article and pointing out Nigeria’s lack of a credible central database as one factor limiting its democracy and development in several sectors, I concede that some peculiarities of the Nigerian society make full-scale “dubbing” of the UK unwise. For instance, I would not recommend using pencils to mark ballots in Nigeria, at least for now. Added to this is the sad fact that the illiteracy level in Nigeria would pose limitations for a central database. However, a focus on education can fix this limitation. In fact, nothing is impossible if Nigeria decides to wake up. The problem is whether we are even willing to leave our horror dreams behind.