Written By Ezeja Victor
Will NPC Digital System for 2023 census pass the integrity test that needs to be conducted on the system to dispel distrust and ensure transparency?
With the postponement of the 2023 National Housing and Population Census, experts and other Nigerians have expressed reservations about the preparation and processes of the exercise.
They welcomed the effort of the National Population Commission (NPC) in delivering a digital technology-driven census for 2023, but warned against operational risks that could affect the transparency and credibility and also security of any data generated during the exercise.
Prior to postponement of the census, NPC had repeatedly assured that its digital database was safe, secured and it is ready to conduct a transparent and credible exercise, saying that digitalising the process would ensure transparency and accountability.
A public policy analyst, Chima Christian, who endorsed Nigeria’s gradual migration to tech-based solutions, especially for the census, said postponing the exercise was necessary to enable the Commission clear issues relating to conducting a credible and transparent one.
Chima, who works with various groups on advocacy, expressed doubt that the NPC digital system was as reliable as the Commission has repeatedly assured.
He called for multi-stakeholder audits and integrity tests on the systems and processes adopted by the NPC for the 2023 census.
He warned that if the systems can be corrupted or technically tampered with by individuals operating them, then they cannot be relied upon to produce accurate and acceptable demographic data.
He cited the recent experiences with the Independent National Electoral Commission’s digital system (that failed in terms of upload of election results on the election day) and warned that if the NPC is allowed to conduct a national census exercise with unaudited systems and processes, then the outcome is easy to forecast.
He pointed out that the National Population Commission’s system being relied on to conduct the exercise have not been audited or subjected to integrity tests, especially by those who stand to be most affected by a flawed census exercise.
The analyst equally questioned the issue surrounding human capacity of personnel managing the Commission’s database.
“We still have to insist that NPC’s systems and processes be subjected to a series of independent multi-stakeholder audits and integrity tests.
“The human capacity questions around the NPC must be satisfactorily addressed before we can hope for a credible exercise,” Chima stated in an interview with TechUncode.
He also stressed the need for a review of the laws governing census exercise in Nigeria. For instance, section 213 of the Nigeria’s 1999 constitution as amended, stated that any report of the National Population Commission containing the population census after every census
shall be delivered to the President by the Chairman of the commission.
The section further provided that the president shall present the report before the council of state who shall consider the report and advise him on whether to accept or reject it on the ground of inaccuracy or being perverse.
President Buhari on Saturday through a statement released by the Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, approved the postponement of the 2023 census exercise, saying it will be left for the incoming administration to determine a date for exercise.
The analyst who emphasised the need to address issues of insecurity whereby many have been confined to IDP camps, away from their ancestral homes, said his group is designing proposed modalities for audits and integrity tests of NPC’s system.
He maintained that empaneling ideas about data integrity and data verification is imperative.
“We have to review the laws governing the exercise in a bid to make concrete ammendment suggestions to the National Assembly.
“NPC’s operational guidelines will also have to be dutifully reviewed to identify the weaknesses and propose updates where required.
“We are also designing proposed modalities for the field tests, scenario tests, audits and integrity tests of NPC’s systems we have been calling for,” Chima added.
Also, the MD of Samsoft Techonlogies, Engr Samson Odo, in a chat with Techuncode, said the idea of adopting a digital technology-based system for the 2023 census is a welcome development but the Commission must ensure that its database is well secured to guarantee safety of data of Nigerians.
Engr Odo, an ICT expert, also expressed doubt about the possibility of having a credible census outcome. He said that even though NPC has assured that digitalising the process would ensure transparency and accountability in the census, human elements could compromise it thereby not given the country what it wants.
Credible census data helps the government in proper national planning for the good of the citizens.
“I have not studied about digital system of the NPC but it is a good idea if Nigeria population is stored in a database. Also the database should always be updated to remove persons in case of death and add in case of birth,” Engr Odo said.
He also joined voices with those calling for an independent audit/integrity testing of the NPC digital system for the census, saying “I support it to prevent manipulation.”
A demography and economic research expert, Dr Ebikabowei Aduku, said that looking at what NPC has on ground now, there are clear indications that the census exercise will not be transparent and credible.
He observed that the digital system may not make any significant improvement in the conduct of the exercise as claimed by the Commission, saying that the system for training of ad hoc staff at local government levels was sabotaged, making them to resort to use of their smart phones and, most of the phones of the trainees were not compatible with the APP and, therefore, were not properly trained.
“There are clear indications already that the census will not be transparent and credible.
“Already, there are complaints that the entire pre-census process is faulty and discouraging, which has already negatively affected the success of the census.
“The digital system of the NPC may not make any significant improvements to the system.
“For example, the devices that were supposed to be used for the training earlier done was hijacked and most of the trainees were left with the only option of using their phones.
“And, most of the phones of the trainees were not compatible for the APP and, therefore, were not properly trained.
“The devices may either be hijacked, or reconfigured to rig the process, etc. Therefore, for me, the deployment of the digital system has already failed and may not make significant changes to improve the process,” Aduku stated in an interview with Techuncode.
Aduku while citing example of what happened with the use of INEC Bimodal Voter Accreditation System (BVAS) during the 2023 general elections, said that even the independent audit/integrity test may not work, adding that what is needed is a better technology.
“Independent audit may not still in any way bring any improvement to the system. For example, the BVAS were tested and credited before the general elections. Yet, during the elections proper, the BVAS system disappointed.
“The whole system was compromised. The case may not be different, even with an independent audit. Therefore, for me, we need better technology than independent audits of devices for the census.”
This echoes the concern raised a few months ago by ICT experts under the aegis of Young ICT Professionals, who warned against operational risk and also ‘single point of failure’ scenario if the National Population Commission (NPC) were to continue with its plan to deliver 800,000 devices from just one company for the upcoming 2023 Census exercise.
The group urged the NPC to ensure that such a high deployment of devices was fairly distributed among the competent factories in tech industry, so as to manage delivery risk and maximize job creation opportunities across the country.
Also one of the NPC ad hoc staff for the 2023 census said it will not be feasible to have a transparent and credible census.
The ad hoc staff in one of the local government areas in Enugu State, who didn’t want his name mentioned said the NPC system is not as standardized as they speak about it.
He remarked that the idea of integrity test of the system would be helpful in detecting flaws in the process and address it before the exercise.
“With the level of moral decadence orchestrated by egocentrism, tribalism and so many other factors among the people, I don’t think that is feasible.
“Though they keep reassuring us of the integrity of their digital system, but still, I don’t think they’re up to standard; not because they don’t have what it takes to bring it up to standard, but because the system is compromised right from root.
“The integrity test is a good idea. If possible, the integrity test should start from individuals to be employed for the excercise; because human beings are most likely to compromise standards whenever there is something to gain or lose.”
It would be recalled that prior to the postponement of the census exercise, a staff of the Commission and Comptroller of Chanchaga Local Government Area in Niger State, Mr. Sanusi Maigida, had claimed that the NPC server was hacked, blaming it on the postponement of local government area-level training of the personnel.
The Commission, however, came out to deny it, saying that its “server is solidly intact and ready to be deployed for the upcoming 2023 Population and Housing Census exercise.”
The Commission in a statement on April 24 said that as part of measures to ensure the confidentiality and integrity of data for the 2023 Census, it has implemented comprehensive security measures to safeguard its servers, applications, and IT infrastructure.
“We deployed state-of-the-art technologies and industry best practices to protect our systems from potential security threats.
“These security measures include robust firewalls, intrusion detection and prevention systems, regular security audits, encryption protocols, and multi- factor authentication for privileged accounts.
“We have also implemented strict access controls and user privileges and conducted continuous systems to detect and mitigate any potential vulnerabilities or incidents in real time,” the Commission said in a statement signed by its Director of Public Affairs, Dr Isiaka Yahaya.