As the September Edo governorship election neared, Ehimen Friday, a ride-hailing company driver, was in an anticipatory mood.
While he rooted for the candidate of the All Progressives Congress, Osagie Ize-Iyamu, he said he would not vote, and he would not buckle to any persuasion.
Why? He fears that “there would be violence,” and apart from that, “votes don’t count.”
Mr Friday’s chosen candidate, Mr Ize-Iyamu, lost the election to incumbent governor Godwin Obaseki, who hails from Oredo local government as Mr Friday.
In the end, only a quarter of the eligible voters voted, according to the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), a historic low and a decline from 32 per cent in 2016.
Since the dawn of democracy in 1999, there has been a consecutive decline in election turnout, although turnout increased from 52 per cent to 69 per cent between the 1999 and 2003 elections, data from the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) showed.
But after the 2003 presidential election, participation in subsequent elections has continued to decline, first to 57 per cent in 2007, then to 54 per cent in 2011, before dropping to 44 per cent in 2015.
|Year||Registered Voters||Total Votes||% of Voters' Turnout|
The closest numbers to this low turnout were recorded during the nation’s first three presidential elections: 35.25 per cent in 1979, 38.94 per cent in 1983, and 36.65 per cent in the 1993 election, which was eventually annulled.
Lagos lagging, Jigawa leading
In 2015, voters’ turnout in the state was 29 per cent. By 2019, it fell to 17.25 per cent.
Sitting on the same table with Lagos are Abia, which saw a decline in turnout from 30 per cent in 2015 to 18 per cent in 2019 elections, and Rivers State which saw a free fall from 71 per cent to 19.97 per cent within the two elections.
This disparity is because, due to “electoral geography; the election culture across states differs,” the director of the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD), Idayat Hassan, told PREMIUM TIMES.
“Northern electorates are more politically savvy than southern Nigeria.”
A December 2015 report titled ‘The Cost of Running Elections – A Cross Country Comparison and published by the National Institute of Legislative and Democratic Studies’, a parliamentary research institution, said INEC spent about N120 billion on the 2015 general elections. This is about half what was apportioned for each of the education and health sectors for that year.
Even though it would record the lowest turnout in history, during the 2019 polls, INEC proposed to spend N189.2 billion, the highest amount for an election in Nigeria’s history, and about half what the nation proposed for its citizens’ healthcare and one-third of education budget.
INEC’s funds are part of a statutory transfer category which, by law, the government must grant high preference. So statutorily, the commission will get N40 billion in 2021 with one of the major elections for the year being the Anambra State governorship polls.
How about parliamentary elections?
A senior programme officer at CDD, Austin Aigbe, said what should be done is to digitise voting and not a change of system.
“We must move beyond our current electoral process that is majorly manual to a more secure electronic process,” he said.
Opponents of the call like Senate President Ahmed Lawan have also said the nation’s diversity makes the bicameral legislature imperative for the country.
Meanwhile, data on the participatory level of Nigerians in the parliament elections since independence mirrors a direr apathy than in presidential elections.
Low as the turnout for presidential elections might have been, the parliamentary elections have had lower turnouts throughout, save in 2015 when turnouts in both polls were at par.
|Year||Registered Voters||Total Votes||% of Voters' Turnout|
In 2011, only 29 per cent (or 3 in 10) of eligible voters elected the members of the parliament. The highest till date was in the pre-independence election of 1959, when 80 per cent of eligible voters voted, data showed.
Since independence, only the 2007 election yielded over 50 per cent turnout.
Mr Aigbe said this is not a rejection of democracy, but a protest against bad governance.
“Nigerians are generally not excited by the governance outcome in the country,” he said.
Voters’ turnout elsewhere
Nigeria’s election turnout is at odds with Ghana’s last presidential elections’ turnout at 68 per cent. The 2017 election that brought in Liberian President George Weah had a voters’ turnout of 56 per cent.
Likewise, about 56 per cent of the eligible voters in the U.S. 2016 presidential election turned up. The turnout in last week’s American presidential election is said to be even much higher than that of 2016 with votes still being collated in some states at the time of this report. In Canada, turnout was 54 per cent. Yet, by international standards, these are low.
In Brazil, those who don’t vote without justification are subject to a fine of R$3.51 (US$0.63), and proof of voting compliance is required for obtaining a passport, admission to public universities, government employment, and loans from government-owned banks.
Belgium, Peru, Argentina, Bolivia, Australia, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Ecuador are some other countries with similar stipulations. Although across Europe, turnout for elections has dropped by 10 to 15 per cent since the 1980s.
Voting is a civic right, which makes it a choice, Mr Austin said. So rather than making it mandatory for Nigerians, he said, “we must deal with the reasons for voter apathy, which is largely whether vote counts.”
“We must continue to improve on the process, it will increase trust in the process and in effect, increase voter turnout,” he told PREMIUM TIMES.
Reasons for low turnout
Although INEC has said Nigeria’s next general election will hold February 2023, Nigeria has a long history of torturous voter registration processes. When that is added to the difficulty in switching polling units due to relocation, turnout for elections is bound to fall.
Oladipo Tolani, a resident of Ogun State, said he could not vote in 2019 because “I was not residing in the local government I registered. I was in school.”
Olanrewaju Jaji, 57, has not voted in three consecutive elections because she kept running out of luck each time she tried to renew her voter’s card. Long queues and long treks with little successes have discouraged her from still trying.
Her 34-year-old daughter, Khadijah would only “take the stress” if obtaining the voter’s card won’t be as difficult as it has been.
Ms Hassan said abstinence from elections could also be to show civic rebellion due to failed promises after previous polls.
Likewise, history of questionable elections conducted by INEC, like the 2007 polls that brought in late President Musa Yar’Adua, which international overseers described as a “charade” and himself admitted was flawed, adds to the reasons voters boycott elections.
Despite these flaws, politicians have continued to use legal technicalities to overturn election results, and some would say, rob the people of their mandates.
“The conduct of the political class fueled by our winner takes all system is a disincentive,” Ms Hassan noted. “We need proportional representation where every party gets something in the end; electoral reforms to unburden INEC, and work more with the citizens.”
Perhaps, the disposition of persons like Mr Friday, the taxi driver, toward elections might change as a result of the #EndSARS movement – against police brutality and by extension bad governance – which has triggered discourse around electoral social engineering on social media.
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