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Monday, January 31, 2011

INEC’s voters’ registration exercise 2011: Understanding the role of Information Technology

Remmy Nweke: The year 2011 began for a lot of Nigerians on the controversies surrounding the decision and readiness of the nation to have credible elections enshrined in the Information and Communication Technology (ICT).

This follows the award of contract for the132,000 Direct Data Capture machines to be used in the registration of voters nationwide, which commenced January 15 and due to end last Saturday, January 29, before the National Assembly held sessions last week to endorse a shift by one week, according to proposition of Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC)- led Prof. Atahiru Jega, the chairman of INEC.

Noteworthy is that INEC awarded three firms the contract to supply the 132,000 DDC machines, namely Zinox Technologies Limited - 80,000 units at $1,771.73 per unit. While Messrs Haier Electrical Appliances Corp Ltd was awarded 30,000 units at $1,699.60 per unit and Avante International Technology Incorporated got 22,000 units at $1,699.60 per unit; which brings the total figure to about N34.5 billion when matched with the exchange of 1 United States Dollar to N150, which precisely amounts to about N34,517,640,000 billion.

Expatiating on this development, the Chief Press Secretary to INEC chairman, Mr. Kayode Idowu, in a press statement made available to newsmen to announce the award of the contract, noted that a unit cost is inclusive of all taxes and charges, while the machines were to be delivered in 35 days from the date of award, which became public on November 7, 2010 of which reports have it should elapse on December 12, 2010. Although some instances of public holidays in both Nigeria and China culminated in moving this date forward before December 20.

As at this time, only Zinox was said to have met the deadline while Haier was reportedly made some supply, whereas Avante’s supplies were missing till date.

Idowu also explained that the reason for Zinox’s contract sum to be slightly higher was because the company being a Nigerian firm is expected to pay the Value Added Tax (VAT) to the government.

Apart from the controversy on the total cost of conducting the General Election come April 2011 worth N87.7 billion, including the procurement of the DDC machines, INEC succeeded in getting the National Assembly to approve another N6.6 billion for the one-week extension; to cushion the effect of accessories supply for the DDC machines, logistics, and stipends for officials made up of 240 members of the National Youth Service Corp (NYSC) and some 900 other key personnel.

Although the first two days of the voters registration exercise suffer set back due to some obvious challenges linked to the inability of INEC to organize capacity building for the 240 NYSC ad-hoc staff.

Despite the fact that it was rumoured initially that INEC would deploy members of the National Association of Computer Science Students (NACOSS), which report said is over 5,000 nationwide.

Preempting discrepancies in the deployment of the DDC machines, one of the contractors, Zinox, obviously in the spirit of Nigerianness, took a decision outside the contract to recruit and deployed a total of 74 supporting staff to ensure that INEC has smooth seal with the on-going voters’ registration using the Direct Data Capturing (DDC) Machines nationwide.

It would be recalled that voters registration exercise commenced countrywide last Saturday, with DDC machines which is running on Linux operating system supplied by a different entity.

Computer experts, however, attributed the slowness of the machines to the kind of operating system. An operating system (OS) which is an interface between hardware and user as being responsible for the management and coordination of activities and the sharing of the resources of a computer, which acts as a host for computing applications run on the machine.

While Linux is an operating system that was initially created as a hobby by a young student, Linus Torvalds, at the University of Helsinki in Finland. Linus had an interest in Minix, a small UNIX system, and decided to develop a system that exceeded the Minix standards. Linus began his work in 1991 when he released version 0.02 and worked steadily until 1994 when version 1.0 of the Linux Kernel was released. The kernel, at the heart of all Linux systems, is developed and released under the General Public License (GPL) and its source code is freely available to everyone. It is this kernel that forms the base around which a Linux operating system is developed.

The Group Corporate Communication Advisor, Zinox Technologies, Mr. Echika Ezuka told Business Champion that the deployment of 74 supporting staff to aid INEC was simply an act of patriotism as that was not part of the contract to supply 80,000 DDC machines, which was completed almost a week before the registration commenced.

He explained that Zinox had deployed two (2) Information Technology (IT) engineers for each of the 36 States and Abuja.

“These 74 support personnel were not part of the contract but a gesture from Zinox to ensure that the DDC technology does not overwhelm the INEC operatives,” he said, stressing that Zinox has caused to be published full page color advertisements in all national dailies designed to give vital tips, with graphic details on the DDC machines beginning from, Monday, January 17, 2011, just two days into the voters’ registration exercise.

He noted that the exercise started nationwide with INEC assuring Nigerians that it had the capacity for an effective voters’ registration, even as he highlighted the fact that the DDC machines, the technology backbone for the exercise had a shaky start in some areas due to the inability of INEC personnel (NYSC ad-hoc staff) to install the machines appropriately.

“The first problem was related to the capacity of INEC personnel to install the equipment properly. In most places the personnel adopted a trial and error strategy that was time wasting and frustrating,” he said.

Additionally, he said that the problem was related to slow finger scanning arising from the way that INEC calibrated its software to achieve high quality finger print, stressing that INEC has given its word that both problems would be fully addressed in full course.

He expressed the belief that as the exercise continues INEC staff began to master the DDC technology, most of these challenges began to disappear paving the way for a hitch free exercise.

Commenting on the on-going voters’ registration exercise with DDC machines, former President of the Nigeria Computer Society (NCS), Deacon Ojinta Oji-Alala urged Nigerians to be patient with the technologies.

According to him, technology driven processes require practice and experience to get it right.

Ojinta who reviewed the exercise by midweek of the first week, said that he was confident that it would succeed but required the public, the governments and the officials of INEC to remain focused on the objectives of achieving a free and fair election through the exploration of modern technology.

He appealed to the public to show resilience through maturity, patience and effective participation, emphasising that the finger printing process has become a challenge and the way to get about it was for the INEC officials to follow strictly the guidelines provided by INEC and the equipment manufacturer as well as tips published by the likes of Zinox.

He warned that excessive dirt, sweat and grease might affect the effectiveness of the scanners, asserting that “Everyone who goes for scanning must ensure that their fingers are dirt free.”

Oji-Alala further urged the INEC operatives to ensure that the scanners are always placed on a flat surface while scanning and should never be cleaned with chemicals as this will damage it.

Based on his understanding, INEC calibrated her software to achieve high quality finger prints and this resulted in slow scanning. Insisting that there is nothing wrong with the actual Direct Data Capturing (DDC) hardware, either the laptops produced by Zinox or the printers from Hewlett Packard (HP) for the exercise.

He pointed out that Zinox being an indigenous computer manufacturer deserves commendation for supplying 80,000 out of the 94,000 DDC machines that INEC has so far deployed for the exercise, noting that its natural for Nigerians to blame even software problems on the hardware branded Zinox.

Speaking on Kaakaki programme on African Independent Television (AIT) monitored in Lagos, the Chairman, Zinox Technologies, Chief Leo-Stan Ekeh declared that no amount of manipulations by evil doers or theft of the Direct Digital Capture (DDC) machines, which earlier began at the Airport with the messing of pallet containing 20 DDC machines, would influence the outcome of 2011.

This, he said, would amount to a mere waste of time for the perpetrators as it would not in any way affect the outcome of the 2011 elections.

He explained that the data being collected by the DDC machines would still be merged and evaluated at the backend of INEC prior to insertion in the database servers. This, Ekeh said, would give the ample time to discover and remove the likes of double registrations among other irregularities eventually.

He maintained that Zinox met with the deadline for supplying of 80,000 DDC machines, days before the curtain was drawn, while attributing the delays experienced at the registration centers the software, which was Linux, an open source.

The scanners, for example, he said, were calibrated by INEC to achieve a high resolution of the finger prints and this led to initial delays that INEC has swiftly rectified. Enlightening that the DDC equipment are installed out there in the dusty harmattan and the hot sun; conditions Zinox boss said wear down most electronic appliances.

He pointed out that these machines were allowed to run up to 10 hours at a stretch on batteries, which is an unusual contraption in most parts of the world, while batteries are supposed to be back-ups but here they are the main supply of power because of the peculiar energy situation in the country.

He further said that the set of hardware were of the highest international quality with the extra strength to stand the rigors of the Nigerian setting.

While commending INEC for being passionate about producing a credible voters’ register for the country, Ekeh said that Nigerians should support the growth of local institutions by being patient and totally cooperative.

He said that Nigerians must support INEC and help all the patriotic efforts that INEC has put in place to materialize. He said that Nigeria has derived invaluable benefits from the fact that the Nigerian company, Zinox, was the first to deliver of the 3 companies contracted to supply the DDC machines. He said that thousands of Nigerians have acquired new competencies in Information Technology and logistics through the assembling and distribution of 80,000 machines. He said that the hundreds of Youth Coppers engaged by INEC for the registration would form a new crust of IT savvy manpower in Nigeria in spite of their shaky start. He urged Nigerians to show appreciation for the tireless hours of work that fellow Nigerians are contributing to nation building by being supportive and not negative.

Mr. Leo Stan Ekeh expressed deep gratitude to the governments and people of Nigeria for the opportunity given to his company to show that Nigerians can also perform to match world class standards. He urged all to take advantage of the learning opportunities embedded in the voters’ registration to bring about a new Nigeria in education, power, and governance. Above all, he said, that this should be a reversal point for all those who are skeptical of Nigerian competence in enterprise management.

For the President, Nigeria Computer Society (NCS), Prof. Charles O. Uwadia on the on-going Voters Registration exercise by INEC, recalls that on Friday 19 November, 2010 during which NCS intimated the nation through the media about its concern in the way and manner INEC went about the very important task of applying IT for the 2011 elections.

They specifically expressed worries about a number of steps and activities taken by INEC among which were the appointment of an ICT Consultant /Adviser the Commission’s chairman who is not a registered IT professional in the country, to NCS and to the IT education regulator, the Computer Professional Registration Council of Nigeria (CPN), specification for contracting three firms to deliver 132, 000 units DDC machines for the forthcoming compilation of fresh voters registers and other electoral process for 2011.

They were precise in observing that two of the contracting firms Messrs Avante and Haier were not registered with CPN as required by law.

“They are not registered with the Computer Professionals Registration Council of Nigeria (CPN).

With these acts, it was clear to us that INEC had downgraded the critical issue of Computer Professionalism as regulated under Computer Professionals Registration Council of Nigeria (CPN) Act 49 of 1993,” he Uwadia decried.

Additionally, NCS said that the manner of conducting training for personnel who were deployed to manage or handle the DDC machines for just two days prior to the exercise was not professionally acceptable to the society.

NCS, therefore demanded that all INEC’s personnel carrying out core IT professional duties in the Commission as matter of urgency should be registered professionals as stipulated in Act 49 of 1993.

“That all persons to interface and operate the DDCM must be trained and certified by professional institutions registered by CPN,” he said in addition to the fact that “all contracting firms who are not registered with CPN should have their contracts revoked.”

Subsequently, NCS said that only registered members of the Computer Profession should be considered for jobs involving computing machinery and called on INEC to redress the identified lapses within one week; failing which legal action would be instituted by NCS against the Commission.

They insisted that INEC must be transparent and fully unfold its strategies for deploying IT for the entire electoral process so that professionals could offer advice where necessary.

Above all, the issue of capacity building for the NYSC ad-hoc staff was supposed to be overtaken by deploying members of NACOSS, on what went wrong as being projected prior to that is undoubtedly a slap on the nation’s education given the number of the NACOSS membership, of which most of them are certified computer literate.

And allowing professional under NCS and CPN room to contribute their quota is key to its success as it was gathered that over two letters written to INEC chairman in this regard has not received any response let alone action. Of course not with unrecognized IT Adviser, who from all intents and purpose should think that NCS has come to take his job.

A stitch in time saves nine as we journey into the General Elections in April.

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