Lebo Omini, a native of Ugep in Cross River State was not cautious when agents of the All Progressive Congress approached him to disclose his permanent voter card details and bank account on the pretense of an empowerment program by their party.
Mr. Lebo, who now fears what might have happened to his information said, “they moved in groups and they came to my house. They identified themselves as agents of the APC and that they were collecting information from people in the community to empower.”
He said he trusted them because they were people he usually saw around during APC activities.
Okoi Omini, another Ugep resident was met by a team from the major opposition party in the State, the Peoples Democratic Party and was promised N30,000 only for his voter card details.
“I was sitting right here in this place when the PDP coordinator in my ward met me,” Omini said. “He told me that those of us who are considered stakeholders were to get thirty thousand naira and others would receive ten thousand. I am a little bit worried because it seems I was lied to.” Omini stated.
He added that “I am still wondering what the information was for because I know it’s not for nothing.”
CrossRiverWatch investigation revealed that this scheme of collecting PVC details in disguise did not just happen in Ugep alone, but in some parts of the state too, and has the backing of those in power.
A party member who spoke to this reporter from Igoli in Ogoja on the condition of anonymity alleged that the APC had directed ward leaders to collect data across the State.
Also, a renowned journalist from Abakpa in Ogoja who has access to the leaders of the party in the state told CrossRiverWatch that in Ogoja, the APC has been collecting data of all the registered voters especially those whose PVC is still with INEC but yet to obtain them.
In Okpoma in Yala LGA, Gideon Akani also confirmed that agents of APC went around harvesting the identification number on voter cards and bank details of eligible voters.
Another eligible voter who is neither a member of the APC or PDP, Mr. Onah Ogar who also resides in Okpoma said APC agents had collected PVC and personal information from voters in Okpoma.
“I filled the form from APC. they said it was for empowerment,” Ogar said, adding that, “if they empower me I will still vote my mind, especially the president.”
But the ruling APC is not alone in the voter card data collection as the PDP is also involved.
A chieftain of the APC in Biko Biko ward in Ugep who did not want his name in print because he is not authorized to speak confirmed that both political parties went around in the community collecting voter’s information.
“The PDP was doing it before we joined them. When we in the APC commenced ours, the target for my ward was to get a minimum of 104 names. This number was shared across the 7 communities that make up the ward. So each community was to bring about 14 or 15 persons. The communities that had appointees of government were given extra numbers,” he said.
James Ofem, also in Ugep, told this reporter that PDP agents had visited him with a promise of empowerment.
They promised him N30,000, he said, adding that “the claim was that they needed the PVC number to verify the name on the account. So I gave it to them.”
None of those who gave their information have received the so-called empowerment and they now fear that their information has been harvested for something they don’t know about.
On why the party was harvesting voter card information in disguise, the state chairman of APC, Barr. Alphonsus Eba was not available for comment.
But the party’s Publicity Secretary, Mr. Erasmus Ekpang in an interview over the phone denied knowledge of the act and kicked against it.
He said it could be propaganda, adding that the party was not aware of such a scheme.
Barr. Vena Ikem, the State Chairman of the PDP also denied his party’s involvement.
He said that “it is impossible for such a thing to come from my office” and that the party in the state does not have “resources for such ventures.”
Vena pointed accusing fingers at the ruling APC saying that they are “going around offering as much as twenty thousand naira and above for people’s PVC and PVC numbers.”
Some political parties and CSO pointed out that collecting such details of eligible voters has no value but INEC should be prepared.
The Young Progressives Party (YPP) chairman in Cross River, Mr. Anthony Attah Bisong said he would engage INEC “to know the implications on the election.”
Mr. Bisong who is also the State Inter-Party Advisory Committee (IPAC) Chairman added, “since it’s by the two major parties it cannot work, it’s an attempt to undo themselves.”
The Social Democratic Party (SDP) deputy gubernatorial candidate in the state, Mr. Dan Obo told CrossRiverWatch that it was an exercise in futility.
“It is of no value,” Obo said. “If you follow the trend of the voting system, the PVC can only be taken to the polling unit by the owner.”
Obo who is also the chapter chairman of the National Youth Council of Nigeria, pointed out that if the parties want to use PVC to rig the election, they are deceiving themselves.
“Anything can happen but 2023 is a different ball game,” Obo said. “If they like, they should ask the whole community to submit their PVC. There is no threat, no value, and nothing to fear for me.”
Comrade Obedience Abang, the state coordinator of Voice of The Electorate, a nonpartisan organization canvassing for citizens’ participation in the electoral process, said that by his understanding of the electoral act of 2022, there is nothing the political parties can do with that information.
“The use of BVAS, by my understanding, has rendered useless the gathering of voter card information as the case may be,” Abeng said.
He warned INEC to be ready because the political parties have something planned. “The parties have expended a lot of resources on this, and they are not stupid. INEC should see their activities as a warning and should be ready for whatever they are planning,”he said.
However, Kehole Enya, rights and constitutional lawyer noted that the parties have sinister or fraudulent purposes for collecting such information.
“Two offenses come to my mind now,” he said. “improper use of voters card, section 117 and impersonation and voting when not qualified, section 119 of the electoral act, 2022. If it is established that they eventually used the information for something, it will be an act of impersonation because they might have a way to go around and use that to influence the outcome of an election.”
Both sections 117 and 119 carry fines for violators.
The State Resident Electoral Commissioner Prof. Yomere Oritsemolebi when contacted said the exercise by the political parties was just a waste of time because the electoral umpire has moved beyond them.
Prof. Yomere did not comment on the illegality or otherwise of gathering such data but said that “the BVAS is unlike the smartcard reader. The smart card reads the information from your PVC while BVAS reads the information from you – your fingerprint and your face. So when you show up at the polling unit, it compares your features with what is stored on the system. How can giving PVC information compromise that?”
Yomere advised the electorate to protect their voter cards like they would do their ATM cards.
But an ICT expert Dennis Isong warned that INEC should be worried.
“There are tendencies that in most centers they will deliberately make sure there is no network connection so that when they insert, they will find a way to bypass the verification,” he said.
He added that “every politician externally will say nothing is happening but internally you should be worried because this is technology. The internet is not that strong in Nigeria, as far as the database is connected through the internet, there is a tendency that it will fail.
“The technology for USSD would have been an easy technology to use but it might not be able to verify fingerprints. It can pass data and receive data even when there is no internet connection but cannot verify fingerprints.”
This investigation was supported by Civic Media Lab.