The ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) has kicked against the decision of the Independent National Electoral Commission INEC to deploy the Bimodal Voter Accreditation System BVAS and the INEC Results Viewing Portal IReV, saying Nigeria is not ripe for the use of such technology. APC National Chairman, Senator Abdullahi Adamu said this on Wednesday evening when he received a delegation from the Commonwealth Election Observation Mission. He said, “Our concern is how ready are we to deploy some of these technologies as regards transmission because we are taking a major step in transmitting election results in realtime. To transmit results, in every part of Nigeria, I’m not sure that the network covers it. I know that even in parts of Abuja, there is no network and we have from now till February when in substantial parts of the country there is no electricity. INEC must assure us 100 percent that as of when due in transmitting results they are ready.” There had been allegations that the ruling party was sponsoring moves to oust the INEC Chairman because of his insistence on deploying more technology to enhance the electoral process. Amid these issues, the Federal High Court in Abuja has held that by the combined provisions of the Constitution and the Electoral Act, INEC cannot stop its Continuous Voters Registration (CVR) until 90 days before the election, saying it is its constitutional responsibility to ensure that prospective Nigerian voters are allowed to register and vote. But the Court declined to order INEC to resume the suspended voter registration exercise.

There are two key things to parse through with the latest developments concerning INEC. The first has to do with the Court’s judgement. The Federal High Court’s verdict is a befuddling interpretation of the law, which says that voter registration should end no later than 90 days before the election. This should mean that INEC can pause the registration at any time but not later than 90 days before the election. If INEC is expected to deliver Permanent Voters’ Cards (PVCs) of newly registered voters before the elections, it will require enough time to finish the registration process, clean up the names to avoid duplications and produce the cards (which are contracted to a third party). Many Nigerians – such as the four who filed the suit against INEC believe that the electoral umpire must continue the registration process till 90 days before the election. At the same time, INEC has creatively maintained that it can close the registration process earlier (not later than) 90 days before any election to complete the revision process through the ongoing display of the voters register for claims and objections, which will end 90 days before the vote. However, the timing of the judgement provides INEC with a leeway such that they do not need even to challenge the verdict: it comes just four days to the 90-day window by which the registration has to end. It is logistically impossible and futile for INEC to mobilise to register qualified citizens for only three days. Nonetheless, there is merit in INEC filing an appeal to ensure that this verdict does not set a judicial precedent, especially considering that after the 2023 general elections, there will be off-cycle elections, including three governorship elections in November 2023 (Bayelsa, Imo and Kogi), and this verdict will be in effect if it is not challenged or if it is upheld on appeal. One thing is clear: the judgement will test the application and limits of The Electoral Act 2022 and INEC’s interpretation of a truly ‘continuous’ voter registration exercise. We have certainly not heard the last of this. On BVAS, it is worth noting what the technology is meant to accomplish and why it might become the latest political potato in this cycle. The Bimodal Voter Accreditation System (BVAS) is an electronic device designed to read Permanent Voter Cards (PVCs) and authenticate voters – primarily using their fingerprints – to ascertain their eligibility to vote at a polling unit. In addition to authentication, BVAS also acts as the INEC Voter Enrolment Device (IVED) during voter registration, virtually eliminating the need for incident forms during accreditation, a key weapon for election lawyers seeking to challenge the validity of results when litigation inevitably occurs. BVAS has always had its sceptics. When it was first deployed in a Delta State bye-election in 2021, some presiding officers complained that the machines had difficulties capturing the thumbs and faces of some voters, especially older voters. While its performance has kept improving, and it won new converts in the 2022 state elections in Ekiti and Osun, one key issue has become increasingly apparent – the devices, which require regular software updates and work by electronically transmitting authentication to cloud-based servers, need an excellent Internet connection to work optimally. Ideally, that means broadband access, but that is not widely available across the country, particularly in rural areas. For context, MTN, the country’s largest operator, self-reported 75 percent national 4G coverage and 88.9 percent 3G coverage. Those are the industry’s best marks and do not account for service quality which is highly variable depending on geography and device specifications. Coverage doesn’t always mean usability, merely availability. Overall internet penetration in Nigeria was only 45 percent as of September 2022, well short of the government’s 70% internet penetration target in urban and rural areas by 2025, but it is growing. As of this year, the estimated number of internet users in the country is more than 108 million. More importantly, the share of the country’s population that is connected to the internet is expected to rise by approximately 60% in 2027. The possibility of technical challenges arising from using BVAS should not prevent its use. As always, the devil is in the politics. Given growth trends and the progress made in technology deployment, the APC’s protests come off as detrimental to efforts to make elections less legally contentious. There have also been provisions for manual accreditation of voters in areas with poor internet access. The APC chairman’s comment is another attempt by politicians to prevent the use of electoral technology. Before the passage of the current Electoral Act, the Senate had inserted a clause that made electronic transmission of results subject to the Nigerian Communications Commission ascertaining sufficient telecom coverage for it to be deployed. The provision effectively robbed INEC of its constitutionally enshrined independence despite repeatedly stating that it had successfully tested the technology in numerous locations around the country, especially since the tech is built with low or no network coverage redundancies. INEC and other stakeholders managed to extract from lawmakers the legal protection under Clause 57 (2) of the Electoral Act 2022 to “use a smart card reader or any other technological device that may be prescribed by the Commission, for the accreditation of voters, to verify, confirm or authenticate the particulars of the intending voter in the manner prescribed by the Commission.” Virtually every tech innovation introduced to Nigeria’s electoral system has been met with opposition from the political class with the ever-present excuse that the country is not ready. Over the last three electoral cycles, INEC has consistently sought to apply technology to improve the credibility and safety of the electoral process, and it should be encouraged. Mr Adamu’s comments will fall on deaf ears. Electoral technology such as the BVAS and iRev is a fait accompli.

Five Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) governors and some aggrieved party stalwarts announced the formation of the Integrity Group within the party. The governors include Rivers’ Nyesom Wike, Benue’s Samuel Ortom, Oyo’s Seyi Makinde, Enugu’s Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi and Abia’s Okezie Ikpeazu. According to media reports, the governors and some aggrieved party leaders held a strategy meeting in Lagos. Addressing journalists on Sunday before going into the closed-door meeting, Mr Makinde said the Integrity Group remained the face behind the struggle within the PDP. Mr Makinde said: “We are here this morning to hold a meeting of the Integrity Group within our party, the PDP. We have been of the G5- that is, the five PDP governors. The G-5 is all about the Integrity Group. You can see us, five serving governors, as the face of this struggle.” Mr Makinde, however, spoke on the need for their meeting. “We are in the South-west to review the situation within our party, to review where we are and to also look at what is going to happen in the coming elections,” he said. The News Agency of Nigeria reported that other PDP leaders at the meeting included former governors Olusegun Mimiko (Ondo), Ayo Fayose (Ekiti), Donald Duke (Cross River), Jonah Jang (Plateau) and former Deputy National Chairman of the PDP, Bode George. Also present were former Attorney-General and Minister of Justice, Bello Adoke; Deputy National Chairman (South) of the PDP, Taofeek Arapaja; Nasif Suleiman, Nnena Ukeje, Sandy Onor and Mao Ohabunwa.

For the PDP, veterans of a decade and a half of leadership at the federal level, this feels like deja vu (or karma, if you belong in that school of thought). The party’s loss during the 2015 presidential election stemmed largely from disunity and a rare but consequential absence of party discipline that led to a mass exodus to the then-opposition All Progressives Congress, spearheaded by five sitting governors of which then Rivers Governor Rotimi Amaechi was the arrowhead. Mr Wike has hinted that this is payback for what he considers Mr Atiku’s betrayal by not supporting Goodluck Jonathan’s re-election effort in 2014. However, the strength of the new Integrity Group is as questionable as their unity and commitment to hold on to their primary demand: the removal of current PDP chairman Iyiorcha Ayu and the zoning of that office, a mostly figurehead role, to the South. Of the five, only Seyi Makinde of Oyo is up for re-election. There is chatter that through backchannels, he has reached a deal with Atiku’s camp to ensure a smooth reelection for him in exchange for Oyo remaining in the PDP. From Atiku’s standpoint, that is no small concession; in 2019, he won the state, which had 891,080 votes cast, by a mere 1,461 and in an even tighter cycle next year, every piece of the chessboard matters. The plans of the G-5 governors remain in the air if one goes by their flirtatious reception of every major presidential candidate bar Atiku. Given the cohort of party bigwigs they have been able to draw to their cause, the prospects of a unified major opposition party in a make-or-break election appears a remote possibility. Then again, that is a feature, not a bug, of Nigerian party politics.

On Tuesday, the Nigerian National Petroleum Company Limited started drilling for oil and gas at a field in northern Nigeria with reserves of one billion barrels as the country seeks to produce crude outside the Niger Delta for the first time. In a statement, the company said that phase one of the Kolmani project in the northeast would have an oil refinery, gas processing unit, 300-megawatt power plant and a fertiliser plant producing 2,500 tonnes a day. NNPC Ltd first announced in 2019 the discovery of crude oil, gas and condensate in commercial quantity in the Kolmani area between Bauchi and Gombe States in northeastern Nigeria. This region is battling an Islamist insurgency. President Muhammadu Buhari also said that Kolmani had one billion barrels of oil reserves and 500 billion cubic feet of gas. “It is therefore to the credit of this administration that at a time when there is near zero appetite for investment in fossil energy, coupled with the location challenges, we are able to attract investment of over $3 billion to this project,” Buhari said at a ceremony to start the oil project. Buhari urged NNPC and its partners to work with local communities and draw lessons from the restive Niger Delta, where militants have in the past blown up pipelines, accusing oil companies of neglecting locals.

The $3 billion Kolmani Integrated Development Project is the culmination of Mr Buhari’s personal commitment to seeing a hydrocarbon project in the North go live. There are some important caveats to reckon with, which are rooted in the history of oil prospecting in the region. A proper appraisal is at the heart of understanding why all the major oil companies passed up this investment opportunity. In the 1993 Production Sharing Contract round, three Oil Prospecting Licences – OPL 809, OPL 810 and OPL 813 were given to Shell, Chevron and Elf, respectively. Shell drilled Kolmani River 1 and found 33 billion cubic feet (BCF) of gas. As a context, this is equivalent to 18 megawatts worth of electricity production over 20 years. The company deemed it an insufficient return on investment and returned the licence to Abuja. In OPL 810, Nasara-1 was worked by Chevron and turned up dry. With OPL 813, Kuzari-1 was worked by Elf and also turned up dry. These three wells are in the Upper Benue Trough and, along with the Chad Basin, were the top targets for making significant oil finds. With the three licences returned to the government, the New Nigeria Development Company, owned by the 19 Northern states, was awarded the rejected licences. About 23 wells were drilled in the Chad Basin. Three sub-basins, basically larger basins with smaller arteries, were found in Baga, Gubio and Maiduguri, all in Borno. Some work on interpreting seismic data from Chad’s finds was halted in 2014 as Boko Haram activity interfered with prospecting work. By 2016, President Buhari had ordered the NNPC to explore for oil in the four frontier basins in the North – Benue, Bida, Chad and Sokoto, saying that attention would be given to two others – Anambra and Dahomey in the South where larger commercial quantities of oil had already been found. Before this directive, it was the purview of commercial interests to drive exploration efforts. In came the Frontier Exploration Service to do the President’s bidding. Disregarding the reticence shown earlier, the resumption of explorations in Borno eventually led to the abduction of 10 NNPC and University of Maiduguri geologists in an incident that left seven soldiers and 43 others dead. Although the exact location where this incident took place in Jibi village, Magumeri LGA is a distance from Bauchi and Gombe, where the current project is being cited, recent attacks have shown that Boko Haram’s offspring, the Islamic State’s ability to strike far away from its strongholds has dramatically improved. Work continued on the Upper Benue Trough, and in February 2019, Buhari was on-hand to flag off the drilling of an appraisal well to reevaluate Shell’s find. By October, Kolmani-2 was successfully drilled, and the NNPC said it found oil. In that announcement, the then-corporation said hydrocarbon volumes in the second well were still being computed. Three more wells were drilled up to 2021 when bids were sent out for prospective investors to farm- in the field. Indian-owned Sterling Global was the preferred bidder. Now that four wells have been drilled, two are said to be commercially viable, with one billion barrels of oil and 500bcf of gas. However, it is important to note that the field’s reserves are 2p reserves, meaning less than 90% of the oil is commercially recoverable. The oil majors do not play with such odds, hence the ambivalence in the 1990s. The NNPC had no such issues. During negotiations for the passage of the Petroleum Industry Act, the National Assembly pushed for the creation of a frontier exploration fund to be funded from NNPC’s profit. To the chagrin of many southern stakeholders, the bill sailed through, and it was signed into law that 30% of the NNPC’s profit would be devoted to frontier exploration. When juxtaposed with the NNPC’s inability to contribute to government coffers because of its subsidy withholding costs and negative industry-wide production hurting revenue generation, what this means is that the Federation Account Allocation Committee (FAAC), where public revenue is shared between Abuja and the states, will be at the back of the queue priority-wise. Put another way, before consideration is given to Nigeria’s cash-strapped states, oil prospecting in places that have been checked and abandoned would be prioritised. The two Kolmani wells are about 700 km away from the Gulf of Guinea. Logistically, its resources cannot be moved through pipelines as Nigeria has proved hopeless at developing and maintaining pipeline infrastructure. This is why the project’s first phase involves the creation of a refinery, a power plant and a fertiliser plant to ensure that the oil and gas produced from the field, officially pegged at 50,000 barrels per day, are processed before they are trucked out. In essence, it might be more expensive to produce and evacuate oil and gas from Kolmani than it is to produce from Anambra, Dahomey or the Niger Delta (astonishing considering the Delta is one of the most expensive places to mine oil in the world). Observers are not convinced about the quantity of oil the government and its partners insist they can recover. Southern Nigerian states who are not shareholders in these frontier basins would baulk at resources that could be spent on cleaning up and reinvesting in the Niger Delta being channelled into risky assets. In the end, it is possible that the estimated security risk of Kolmani has discouraged greater private-sector participation. Or it might be something more fundamental – the perception that the exploration is driven more by political than commercial considerations. As the government seeks active divestment from the challenges of oil theft and accompanied militancy in the Niger Delta, its inability to keep the peace in its newfound oil province will begin to raise questions about the security of the funds raised for this project. Notwithstanding, over the next couple of years, we expect the NNPC to make huge investments in the area in an attempt to make it work. In the event that it does, we expect that the agitations for resource control will suddenly gain widespread momentum. And that might be the best outcome for Nigeria.

The Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) has urged President Muhammadu Buhari to “promptly set up a presidential panel of enquiry to thoroughly, impartially, effectively and transparently investigate spending on all social safety-nets and poverty alleviation programmes and projects executed between 2015 and 2022.” SERAP also urged him “to ensure the findings of any such investigation are widely published, and suspected perpetrators of corruption, and mismanagement of public funds meant to take care of the poor should face prosecution as appropriate, if there is sufficient evidence, and any stolen public funds should be recovered.” A recent report by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) showed that 133 million Nigerians are poor, despite the government reportedly spending ₦500 billion yearly on ‘social investment programmes.’ Half of all poor Nigerians are children. In the letter dated 19 November 2022 and signed by SERAP deputy director Kolawole Oluwadare, the organisation said: “The report suggests a grave violation of the public trust, and the lack of political will to genuinely address poverty, and uphold your government’s constitutional and international human rights obligations.” The organisation said the report also “suggests corruption and mismanagement in the spending of trillions of naira on social safety-nets and poverty alleviation programmes, including the reported disbursement of over $700 million from the repatriated Abacha looted funds to these programmes.” SERAP said the government should prioritise investment in education and healthcare and redirect some of the “unnecessary spending” in the 2023 budget to address poverty.

The National Social Investment Programme, established in 2016 after the Buhari administration got around to constituting its cabinet, fulfilled one of its core electoral promises. While nearly ₦3 trillion has since been spent on these programmes, it is important to do this impact analysis as the administration winds down. Much of the criticism has been on the opacity of these programmes. Nigerian governments are notorious for setting up social safety and poverty programmes with weak or non-existent mechanisms to ensure transparency or to evaluate outcomes to improve future programmes. Since its inception, the programmes have focused mainly on ensuring a more equitable distribution of resources to vulnerable Nigerians, including children, youths and women. In this administration’s tenure alone, these efforts include N-power, the Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT), the Government Enterprise and Empowerment Programme (GEEP) – where the TraderMoni program is domiciled and the Home Grown School Feeding Programme (HGSF). Under the Goodluck Jonathan administration, the signature intervention was the Subsidy Reinvestment and Empowerment Programme (SURE-P), set up in 2012 following the removal of subsidy on petrol to address critical infrastructure gaps and offer a skill acquisition track for low-income applicants. Despite this wealth of goodwill, capital, and bureaucratic heft channelled into social investments, little has been accomplished in forestalling the ascendancy of poverty in Nigeria, with the country now the world’s poverty capital. SERAP’s attempt at forcing a conversation on the accountability and transparency of these programmes is laudable. However, this government has almost no appetite to rock the boat in its twilight. Social investment programmes should enhance the economic prospects of some of society’s most deprived demographics. The economic challenges confronting the Nigerian state despite the huge cash transfers represent a casus belli, and SERAP is only scratching the surface of a deeper malaise, including unclear policy formulation and execution. Future trends leave little room for comfort as the leading presidential candidates have offered scant insights into their social protection plans and an agenda for fostering fiscal transparency and accountability. We, therefore, agree with SERAP on this – the government cannot spend what amounts to one full year’s revenue of the federal government without a significant degree of accountability.