Wednesday, August 25, 2010

e-Voters’ registration: Between INEC and local content


Following the transformation anticipated in the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC’s) desire to recapture the voters electronically, REMMY NWEKE, reports that stakeholders want INEC to look wards locally to ensure that local Information and Communication Technology (ICT) firms participant actively in the exercise.

A fortnight ago, the National Assembly comprising both the Red and Green chambers formally approved the N87.7 billion, demanded by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) for the anticipated successful organisation of the 2011 general elections expected to begin with the recapturing of the eligible voters in the country out of the estimated 150 Nigerians.

Some school of thought have defined electronic voting (e-voting) as any voting process where an electronic means is used for votes casting and results counting and this applies to registration of voters. Yet, others said e-voting is an election system that uses encryption to allow a voter to transmit their secure and secret ballot over the Internet. The fact remains that this cannot take effect without effective Direct Digital Capturing (DDC), also known as e-registration.

As at date, reports have it that some seven Information and Communication Technology (ICT)-related companies are vying to provide this service to INEC for the 2011 and beyond general elections. But one concern heavy on the minds of the ICT stakeholders is the ability of INEC to look inwards by giving local ICT entrepreneurs the opportunity to further prove their capabilities as far as ensuring the accomplishment of this exercise among the lot that have already submitted proposals to the Commission.

While giving audience recently to the executive of the Joint Action Committee on ICT Awareness and Development (JACITAD), during a courtesy visit in Lagos, to applaud the firm’s latest ranking as the number one selling laptop in the country by the United States-based International Data Corporation (IDC), the chairman of Zinox Technologies, Dr. Leo-Stan Ekeh, declared the willingness of his company to deliver the estimated 120,000 information technology-based equipment for the actualization of the exercise, otherwise known as Direct Digital Capture (DDC) of the INEC in preparation for the forthcoming 2011 general elections within seven weeks.

Also, he told the team comprising ICT media practitioners and corporate bodies led by its national president, Prince Osuagwu that Zinox has the capacity to deliver all the 120,000 machines required by INEC if given the opportunity.

Pointing out that on the issue of capacity of a local company like Zinox to deliver the INEC required quality and quantity of DDC machines on time, Ekeh recollected that firstly, the DDC machine was a Zinox making when the company was invited to intervene to save the voters registration of 2006.

Maintaining that Zinox has the capacity with factories in Nigeria, Taiwan and China; logistics arms in Europe and research and development arms in Taiwan and Nigeria; to deliver these units within seven weeks from date of confirmed order, stressing that these facilities are open for physical inspection.

He pointed out that Zinox Group would match the pricing of any foreign competitor, if given a chance, declaring, “We’re a Nigerian company and this is not a sin and we have rescued INEC and major national projects in the recent past. We don’t blow our trumpet because we pay attention to only the science of business and not the politics.”

Additionally, Dr. Ekeh said that the Zinox Group has enhanced its capacity since the last three years in spite of the global financial melt-down and could assure INEC that Zinox is bigger than most of these foreign companies flooding Nigeria with unverifiable claims and no cultural responsibility.

He said that the INEC DDC machines could only be delivered by a company with manufacturing, distribution and integration facility with at least 75 per cent control of resources internally to meet the eight weeks deadline. “Zinox has these in Nigeria, South Africa, Europe and Asia, including a 14-branch-local nationwide office network to facilitate support, in addition to having already obtained written commitments from Intel Corporation, Microsoft and No. 1. webcam and finger print scanner manufacturers in the world to deliver the last unit of product by the 5th week complete with an after sales support package,” he disclosed.

These companies, he emphasized, assisted Zinox in 2006 to intervene for INEC within 10 days, insisting that Zinox, has obtained these commitments in anticipation that the company may be considered as there is no time.

“If you fail with this sort of project, you take a total loss. It is not a business for brokers. They must watch commission takers because you have little options if you are disappointed and I think 2006 was enough lessons,” he said, commending the attributes of Prof. Attahiru Jega-led INEC, saying that another source of worry is delivering the products into Nigeria at this time of the year that there is huge traffic out of Asia, because they are export oriented.

“You need to charter about fourteen 747 cargo Aircraft to deliver these units to Nigeria at a tight season like now in Asia. The logistics arms of the Zinox Group in Holland and the United Kingdom have equally geared up in case the company is considered,” he revealed, highlight the fact that this project demands corporate integrity at this last hour and not cash, thus, he advised Jega and his team to look inwards as their success should be total success with Nigerian content.

Ekeh further thanked the JACITAD executive, reminding them that there would always be problems and opposition sometimes arising from short sightedness but they should remain focused. He advised INEC that development of ICT in Nigeria gets priority attention, most importantly in provision of support services to INEC at this critical moment of conducting free and fair elections in Nigeria.

Also, awash in the news was the fact that the Nigerian Communications Satellite (NigComSAT) Limited, has already applied for the worldwide patent of its e-voting registration application in readiness for the 2011 general elections, just as the company advised INEC leadership to look inwards in deployment of ICT for the exercise, so as to encourage local IT entrepreneurs, especially in the hardware sub-sector.

Affirming this, the Managing Director, NigComSAT, Mr. Ahmed T. Rufai, noted that there is need for Nigeria t do self-searching in order to tap from the local companies’ capabilities in providing part or holistic deployment for the exercise expected to be a transformational step for the country.

He said, by deploying computers, especially laptops needed for the project through the Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) such as Zinox, Omatek, Beta and Brian with NigComSAT e-voting suite, to name a few, it would reduce capital flight and spur local companies in creating more jobs for the populace.

“We should believe in ourselves and look inward in developing this country because for every Naira you throw out of this country, you are developing the economy of another country,” he warned, wondering what policies are in place to ensure that Nigeria have developmental agenda.

Rufai stressed that the Local Content Act recently passed into law by the National Assembly should not just be restricted to the oil industry alone, but should apply in so many other sectors, mostly ICT at this time. “We should try to enhance our local industries for them to be competitive enough over other foreign counterparts,” he declared, wondering “if you are talking of creating employment and reducing crime, to what extent are we matching our words with actions.”

Pointing out that now that INEC is seeking to conduct direct digital capturing of voters’ registration for the forthcoming general elections, it is vital that local content is brought to bear on the exercise by encouraging Nigerian companies to participate actively in the deployment.

Further, Rufai described the exercise as the simplest form of software engineering, because the hardware required includes laptop and a webcam, stressing that what makes the e-registration complete is just the software platform; “the template that enables the hardware to connect together, not just an intelligent table if I can call it, but a table that we design not with the Microsoft Window, for every Window there is a software behind the Window that is not seen. But to create table itself there is a command and the template will be used for data analysis, storage and production eventually.”

He emphasized that what is actually uploaded would comprise a special table for the capturing of the picture, finger print and bio-data of the voters as well as where they would want to vote, insisting that what is really needed for DDC is a modern laptop equipped with webcam and biometric machine.

“So, all these things were what we have produced locally and it’s owned by Nigerians because we are government-owned. Whatever is our product is owned by Nigeria; they can decide to take it free of charge without paying N1 for it,” he asserted, noting that a computer could be used for more than three wards.

Though, he said, Nigeria is not yet there for e-voting, in terms of allowing citizens to vote electronically, Rufai disclosed that flexibility has come to the system, based on the recent study by NigcomSAT, maintaining that his firm has experimented on this technology in the past two years, citing an instance of staff attendance system based on smart card.

“In fact, it is from this system we graduated, because everything we place there represents entire register system of workers, giving them smartcard and authentication of their presence; when they come to work and when they close from work,” he said, explaining that it’s a system that has been used over time and is resilient.

NigComSAT demand, according to him, is that it’s high time to look within, because there are multiple advantages in INEC taking these decisions correctly, even as he alleged that INEC intends to provide vendors with 30 per cent worth of the contract, saying that this amount is enough to build a micro-electronic computer line in the country.

“Imagine if we start producing our own computer, television as it used to be in Phillip in Ojota in those days, imagine if we start producing our own handsets for 50 million mobile telephone users in Nigeria,” he declared. This is how you grow the economy toward vision 2020 and not exporting all the money to foreigners,” he canvassed.

He maintained that what is really needed for the direct capture machine is a modern laptop equip with camcorder in addition to the biometric machine.

He charged INEC to use this voters’ registration exercise to challenge and encourage local capacity building, just like former President Olusegun Obasanjo did in a 2005 memo, thus, giving support to local IT hardware manufacturers.

“They can ride on that and the beauty of it all is that we have created an electronic ballot system which cannot be snatch and you cannot snuff ballot paper into it because the entry is mechanized and there is magnetic reader that recognizes whether this ballot paper will enter it or not. If the answer is yes, it is the one way to accept the ballot paper from you. You cannot even vote with the ballot paper unless you are programmed to vote in that ward,” he said.

Elucidating on the electoral ballot papers, Rufai said, they would be biometrically inclined as well as the finger tips.

“Why can’t we just look at it for once, and the beauty of it is that we can export this to Ghana and some other West African countries, and even export this to Europe and America,” he said, insisting that if China is exporting technological product to America, he does not see what could stop Nigeria from doing same.

He revealed that NigcomSAT has already applied to the United States (US), Europe and worldwide, for patent of this product and that they are very confident about this application for e-registration and voting.

“It is still pending, they have not replied us, which means nobody has done it because once you apply for United States patent and worldwide patent, they will start doing their research. So, we believe that if we adopt this solution, it will put Nigeria on the path of technological progress and diversifying our economy and the path of attaining our vision 2020, so that we match our words with actions,” he submitted.

For the chief executive of one of the leading OEMs, Omatek Group, Mrs. Florence Seriki, there should be collaboration with local factories, so as to create local capacity and assist in employment, especially with the current situation in the country. She assured that if things are done well that Nigerians would invariably be happy at the end.

National president, Nigeria Computer Society (NCS), Prof. Charles Uwadia, told ITRealms Online that local OEMs should have at least 60 per cent of the data capture machines to be deployed and same is for software for the exercise.

President, Information Technology (Industry) Association of Nigeria (ITAN), Dr. Jimson Olufuye, warned that they are not against part of the DDC ingredients being assembled here like the mini-laptops, noting that DDC machines are presently manufactured mainly in the South-East Asia, insisting that with the appropriate and proactive arrangement, it could be delivered on time.

According to him, though the core equipment cannot be entirely manufactured locally, like the DDC, it is of essence to domesticate some of these solutions, so as to avoid limited local contents to just consultancy and usage. “Our hope is that it’s used well for data integrity for credible elections,” he said.

In conclusion, the need to look inwards would go beyond spurring more jobs for Nigerians, but sustain the available number of local employees, OEMs and then the multiplier effects. Therefore, if INEC want to truly succeed, it must embrace local content and mindful of just ‘portfolio business men,’ which have been described as commission agents.

With assurances by Prof. Jega’s INEC on credible exercise, noteworthy here also is the time factor; time to get relevant credits to facilitate the job order eventually, is of utmost importance, given that the DDC exercise may not exceed two months. After all, time waits for nobody and then, let the electoral transformation begin with ICT.

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