James Shyne is no stranger to Nigeria, but he still was surprised by what he saw there in March as an elections monitor.
Shyne is a senior associate for International Economic Growth at Abt Associates and a senior fellow at UMass Boston’s Center for Peace, Democracy, and Development. He has worked on Nigeria-related projects since 2001, including democracy and governance and program evaluation. Most recently he led an internal impact assessment by the Interfaith Mediation Centre (IMC) of their USAID funded TOLERANCE activity in Nigeria, a five-year effort launched in 2012 to reduce social and religious conflict.
The Washington, D.C.-based National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI) asked Shyne to serve as a volunteer elections monitor as part of the NDI delegation for the recent presidential and legislative general elections in March. NDI, which fielded a team of 24 international delegates, was one of many groups monitoring the elections.
Multiple Types of Voter Verification
The March elections were not totally free from violence, disputes, or allegations of corruption, Shyne said. But compared with previous Nigerian elections, they had very few problems. Voters, poll workers, elections officials, and security personnel showed tremendous patience and perseverance, he said.
For example, many voters waited hours to be accredited and then to cast their votes. Accreditation in Nigeria is a three-step process that must be finished before people cast ballots. First, poll workers used small handheld devices to scan voting ID cards. Then the workers visually matched the photos on ID cards with people holding the cards. Lastly, workers scanned voters’ fingerprints on the machines. Shyne said the fingerprint scans often returned false negatives, which required additional manual verification.
One of the polling places Shyne observed with two NDI colleagues – located in Niger state in north central Nigeria – needed a few hours to verify the approximately 670 registered voters who had turned out on election day. Meanwhile, voters waited nearby under mango trees or wherever they could get relief from the 100-degree heat. Voting began only after finishing accreditation of all the people who were going to vote there. Voting ended in the early evening, but counting the paper ballots required a few more hours, which forced exhausted poll staff and observers to work well into the night.
Poll workers worked tirelessly all day, Shyne said. “I was in awe of their professionalism and perseverance,” he said. “People were bending over backwards to let us observe the process. It was very, very transparent.”
Shyne saw one young female poll worker faint, perhaps from the heat. But she continued working after she was revived with the help of an orange Fanta.
Many Eyes Were Watching and Reporting
Adding to the transparency was the number of other people observing and verifying vote counts, including representatives from the country’s two major political parties and voters themselves. If poll workers made any counting mistakes, multiple people were on hand to correct them. This continued late into the night.
Digital communications also played a huge role in this election. Once ballots are counted at local polls, they are collated and verified by others at the regional and state levels. It is at this stage in the process that many of the most serious acts of fraud and corruption often occur, as they did in 2007 and 2011.
But this time thousands of Nigerian election observers, many of them working for the NDI-supported Transition Monitoring Group, used their smartphones to report results, which were aggregated quickly and served to verify that the later counts were conducted properly in most cases. These quick count results may have influenced the decision by the incumbent candidate for president, Goodluck Jonathan, to concede quickly, which likely prevented violence, Shyne said.
Shyne was impressed by the patience of the Nigerian voters. Most people remember the country before 1999 when it was run by a military dictatorship. Nigerians very much value their right to elect their leaders and were willing to put up with long waits to make sure their votes counted.
Many observers of Nigeria have said that the country could be the economic powerhouse of Africa – if it could solve its political corruption challenges, Shyne said. Shyne is confident the election results reflected the votes cast. So maybe Nigeria has cleared one more hurdle to fulfilling its potential, he said.