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Lack of transparent system responsible for voters’ apathy in Nigeria, say experts

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A deserted polling unit in Lagos at 2019 election PHOTO: FEMI ADEBESIN-KUTI


Millions of Nigerians trooped out on February 23 and March 9 to cast their ballots in the gubernatorial, parliamentary, and presidential elections across the country. From reports across the country, there was low turn out of voters in the 2019 general election, which will close with the proposed supplementary elections scheduled for April 2019 in Rivers.

The number shrunk in 2019 in spite of the ever-increasing awareness about participating and registered voters. This has been the pattern with every election cycle. For instance in 2015, only 29,432,083 voters out of the 67,422,005 registered voters turned out to cast their votes. Even with that drop in number of voters who turned up to cast their votes, there were 28,587,564 valid votes and 844,519 invalid votes.

Before the commencement of the general elections in February, the Independent Electoral Commission (INEC) announced that it had registered 16.58 million voters between 2015 and 2019. That number meant that over 84 million Nigerians were registered and eligible to vote in 2019.

However, preliminary figures of the number of people who actually turned up to vote in 2019 show that the percentage of voters that headed to the polls to vote in all of the elections was less than the percentage that voted in 2015. Indeed, the number of actual voters fell short of the bar set by political parties, INEC and political observers. It was also in stark contrast to 1999 when 70 per cent of all registered voters turned out to vote. It was evident from the turn out that there was a general apathy and a sense of growing discontent in the electorate with the electoral system

A number of reasons have been advanced for the dismal low turn out of voters. Observers say the heavy activity of Boko Haram, terrorists and herdsmen and continued insurgency in most part of the country contributed in no small measures to the low turn out of voters. There are those who say that perhaps the electorate is disenchanted with the political class and parties who make promises during campaigns before elections and never keep to them. Besides, the violence that characterised the presidential election in some parts of the country kept most people away from performing their civic duties.

Politics has always been described as a battle of the fierce not the fittest. As the saying goes, ‘in politics, there is no permanent friend or enemy, but permanent interests.’ Power is usually the central focus because with power one automatically possesses the key to a world of unlimited resources. Thus power, in the final analysis under normal circumstance, resides with the people but the system has been so rigged that even the people have come to see through the façade and are responding with indifference and apathy. Speakers at various outings have argued that until the people of Nigeria begin to assert themselves, the political elites would continue in their unending rape and onslaught on Nigeria’s existence as a country.

Globally, social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr have become very important tools for rallying citizens for a common cause. Whether it is for voter mobilization or electoral impact as used by Barrack Obama in 2008 or the Arab Spring revolution, a series of anti-government protests that spread across the Middle East from late 2010, social media has transformed into a platform for generating and sustaining political interest and activism online and then pushing the movement offline and into the streets.

In Nigeria, the 2012 #OccupyNigeria protests bring to mind a massive protest that succeeded in forcing the Federal Government to reverse its decision to remove fuel subsidies. Despite social media’s track record for generating civic and democratic engagement, especially among young people, mobilizing it to motivate them to regularly participate in the country’s electoral process has continued to be a huge challenge.

While a number of those registered to vote rose from 67 million in 2015 to 84 million in 2019, turnout for actual voting dropped from 44 per cent to 35.6 per cent. Turnout, along with trust in the political system, has been steadily declining from nearly 70 per cent since 2003.

Considering Nigeria’s antecedent at scheduling and rescheduling elections, many have argued that Nigerians feel the last-minute change showed a lack of respect for voters, as those who had planned weddings, funerals and other events on the new dates were forced to reschedule with very little notice. Schools, universities and businesses, which had already declared two or three days of holidays due to elections, had to do so again.

Elections in Nigeria also mean movement of people. Some people, learning from past experience, moved from areas where tensions are high to escape potential election related violence. Others moved to their hometowns and villages where they are registered to vote, traveling long distances, taking time off work and putting their businesses on hold to perform their civic duty.

If they still needed to vote, they would have to either return home and travel back for the new dates or extend their stay at locations near their polling stations, thus incurring costs in terms of travel or work missed. Alternatively, they may chose not to vote at all, with even lower voter turnout than usual (only 33.53 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot in the 2015 presidential election) impacting the elections’ legitimacy.

Trust in democratic institutions is severely dented by how elections and governance play out. Over the past 20 years of Nigeria’s democracy, the complain has been that they see politicians only during election campaigns, where they make big promises that do not come to fruition once they are elected. Indeed, for many youth gangs, getting money from politicians in the run-up to elections is seen as their own ‘dividend of democracy.’ Entertainment lawyer, Mr. Rockson Akpotiri Igelige, who was born in the north, told The Guardian that the northern electorate is more conscious of political power than people in the south.

He said, “I did my Youth Service in Yobe between 1996 and 1997, and throughout my stay I noticed that two main occasions define northern communities – Salah and election days. “In Delta State where I come from, while voting in going on, other people will try to convince others not to vote, saying the election had already been rigged and that the votes will not count. That consciousness of the power of the ballot paper is not there.” He said voter apathy is an age-long anomaly that has characterised past elections.

According to him, “Political parties would tell the electorate: ‘we have done it, just forget about every other thing.’ When they use this expression, which has come to pass three to four times, the people lose faith in the system. The lack of transparency in the system is the cause; the people will automatically believe in the system when it is transparent. Until INEC is truly independent, we will continue to have voter apathy. The system has failed to instill confidence in the people.”

For Chief Executive Officer of Connected Development, Hamzat Lawal, the fact that INEC postponed the election was a major factor in the low turn out.He said, “If you remember during the national assembly and presidential elections, after the week long postponement, we still experienced a little bit of logistics issues, voter intimidation and violence. The State Assembly election was marred by violence, police harassment and so on.

“The citizen has lost faith in public institutions like the police and INEC and one won’t blame INEC for this because its mandate is to conduct free and fair elections, hence they introduced a smart card reader, but the politicians are very desperate and they find ways of undermining INEC’s roles and responsibilities.”Lawal said though social media did a lot to engage citizens through a series of debates built around the elections, adding, “We also discovered that fake news has now gone to another level, misleading citizens.”

According to him, “There is no longer trust between government, government agencies and the citizens. Some people have come out to say that if I don’t trust the government, how am I sure my vote is going to count? “We need to make politics and public offices less attractive. So people will only see the need to go into those offices to serve. Besides, democracy is about service. As at today Nigeria’s lawmakers are the highest paid in the world? If you go into the National Assembly as a thousandnaire you will come out as a billionaire.”He further stressed on the need to ensure INEC is fully independent, and also ensure that it embraces 100 per cent technology, from the polling units to the collation centres, where the politicians collude and change results, noting, “Why do we have to bring all the 36 returning officers to Abuja to announce results? This is a waste of resources. Why can’t we have a central database where as voting is going on, the results are being published on the central database publicly?”

Director, International Press Centre (IPC), Lanre Arogundade, who also observed elections in Kaduna State, said the low turnout showed that Nigerians were disappointed in the government.

According to him, “When you elect a government full of enthusiasm as we had in 2015, and the government fails to perform, it has a way of shaking the people’s confidence in the democratic process. Increasingly, people see elections as circle of ritual and find it very reluctant to come out to vote.”He also lamented politicians defecting from one party to the other, saying it had adverse effect on the psychology of the people.

“Shortly before the elections, the atmosphere became tensed, the president threating to shoot at sight ballot snatchers didn’t help; most people became scared to come out,” he added.  He noted that campaigns on social media do not necessarily translate into votes, as majority of voters do not use the social media, especially the older population who live in rural areas.


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