Voters’ rising disinterest in Nigeria’s electoral system was raised afresh by the Independent National Electoral Commission recently with the disclosure that voter turnout hovered between 30 and 35 per cent in the last two electoral cycles, including off-season elections. Nigerians should begin to embrace the opportunity — better yet, the responsibility — to make themselves heard.
The commission’s Chairman, Mahmood Yakubu, at INEC’s first consultative meeting with Civil Society Organisations in 2021, said some elections recorded higher percentages of voter turnouts, while it was lower in some other elections. According to Yakubu, a few elections had higher voter participation while some recent by-elections recorded lower, such as the 8.3 per cent voter turnout in an urban constituency of over 1.2 million registered voters located in the nation’s most densely populated city.
Recent by-elections conducted by the commission in some states affirmed the unsettling revelation. Specifically, in the December 5 Lagos-East by-election, the commission noted that less than nine per cent of the total number of persons with Permanent Voter Cards participated in the exercise. INEC said about 1,168,790 voters possessed PVCs in the five local government areas comprising Somolu, Epe, Ibeju-Lekki, Ikorodu and Kosofe making up the Lagos-East Senatorial Zone. At the end of the election, figures released by INEC showed that only 104,894 voters participated in the election despite the fact that it was shifted from original October 31 date due to the #EndSARS protests. The returning officer had noted that out of the total registered voters of 1,261,673 in the district, the accredited voters were 104,894, the total votes cast were 104,405, the valid votes were 102,336 and 2,069 were the rejected votes. Of the 11 states where by-elections were held on December 5, eight of them, Lagos, Imo, Katsina, Borno, Plateau, Bayelsa, Kogi and Cross River, recorded low-voter turnout.
The Sweden-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance reported a steady decline in voter turnout in Nigeria’s presidential election between 1999 and 2019. In 1999, the voter turnout was 52.26 per cent, representing 30,280,052 total votes and 57,938,945 registered voters. In 2003, voter turnout increased to 69.08 per cent, with 42,018,735 total votes and 60,823,022 registered voters. In 2007, 57.49 per cent was the voter turnout, while 35,397,517 and 61, 567,036 were the total votes and registered voters respectively. In 2011, voter turnout stood at 53.68 per cent, with a total vote of 39,469,484 and 73,528,040 registered voters.
In 2015, voter turnout shrank to 43.65 per cent and a total vote of 29,432,083 and 67,422,005 registered voters recorded. The voter turnout for the 2019 presidential election was 34.75 per cent; total votes grossed 28,614,190 from 82,344,107 registered voters.
The record is not different in many states in the country. Of the 6.5 million registered voters in Lagos State, 5.5 million obtained the PVCs. INEC’s records however showed that only 1,006,074 voted during the last general election, representing 18.29 per cent of the PVC-holding voters.
Stakeholders have, among other things, identified lack of interest and apolitical stance as part of the reasons people do not vote. But in Nigeria, it is largely because eligible voters are of the view that their votes do not count. In reality, some candidates had in the past lost elections by being rigged out. Dubious politicians, in cahoots with some corrupt INEC officials, often alter the people’s will through rigging and manipulation. The courts add to the disenchantment with the process by delivering controversial judgements. Violence is rampant during elections with voters fearing for their safety on Election Day.
For instance, the 2019 Kogi/Bayelsa governorship polls were bloody as two persons were reportedly killed by stray bullets at the Adankolo polling unit in Lokoja, the Kogi State capital. They were killed when voters tried to stop hoodlums from snatching ballot boxes at the unit. The thugs responded with gunshots. Ballot box snatching and militarisation of the process should be curbed. Extreme deployment of security agencies to monitor elections has played a significant role in keeping many voters indoors during elections. Moreover, it has been observed that the political parties lack discernable ideology, policies and programmes that can galvanise the electorate. Instead, they are perceived as the same with members moving frequently from one party to the other. Poor governance and perceived failure of the system to alleviate poverty, unemployment or deliver social services also discourage voter enthusiasm.
In a free society, it is argued that the right to cast a ballot — to participate as an equal at election time — is among the most precious of rights. It is a building block for a healthy society — a vital principle to be celebrated and safeguarded. But for too long, many citizens have abdicated their voting responsibility due to laziness, complacency or a feeling that their votes don’t matter. This should end.
The Electoral Act needs a wide-ranging amendment to engender sweeping reforms aimed at making elections in Nigeria transparent, easy and less stressful. A level-playing field should be created for political parties and their candidates. INEC must be given an independent status to have free hand in conducting free and fair elections. Voting technologies have developed in parallel with advances in information processing technology. They should be backed by law.
Public office holders have the mandate to deliver on their electoral promises and extend robust democratic ideals to the people. The flawed electoral system continues to recycle unfocussed, greedy and inept politicians at every electoral cycle. To tackle this situation, Nigerians have to hold their leaders accountable through protest votes backed by civil disobedience with support from the civil society groups.