Nigeria, sub-Saharan Africa’s largest economy and home to almost 180 million people, will hold elections on March 28, a six-week delay after its initial date. While international commentators focus debate on the Boko Haram crisis and the risk of electoral violence, another novelty in this 2015 election has gone relatively overlooked: the use of new biometric voting technology. Every Nigerian voter is supposed to receive a permanent voter card, which stores biometric information such as fingerprints and facial image. At the polls, the voters will present their cards and a voter card reader will verify their name on the voter roll and the authenticity of the card. Nigeria has used the Automated Fingerprint Identification System since the 2011 polls. But in 2011, the system only created a digital register to eliminate doubles from the list, and was not capable of verifying the identity of voters at the polling stations. The INEC argues that these new features will bring additional benefits, especially in preventing double votes and ballot stuffing.
Nigeria is taking a risky bet, given that not many countries in sub-Saharan Africa have employed biometrics to verify voters’ identity on election day. In 2012, Ghana implemented an even more sophisticated system, where polling stations were equipped with fingerprint scanners. Kenya tried to do the same in 2013, but the result was a spectacular fiasco. The voter population that Nigeria must manage is much larger than the one in Ghana; moreover, Ghana’s Electoral Commission is known for its strength, professionalism and integrity.
The more general use of biometrics in African elections is on the rise. No fewer than 25 sub-Saharan African countries (including the non-recognized state of Somaliland) have already held elections employing a biometric voter register. And other countries are currently planning to do so.