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What is your vote worth?

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It is always amusing when people balk at transactional relationships when we are confronted with them in all their glory. Many people, men and women alike, clutched their pearls in offense when Christiane Amanpour interviewed a young Ghanaian woman named Moesha who frankly discussed the particulars of her relationship with her “sugar daddy” arrangement with her married boyfriend. She supplied her body, and he supplied the money. Simple. When laid bare so starkly, it all seems so simple.

This girl’s story, so typical offline, captured many an imagination even among Nigerians and the conversation wore on for days, presumably because of the frankness and unabashedness with which she rendered the story on international cable channel. The undercurrent of embarrassment that ran through the negative reactions to the story — why is she talking about this on international television and why is Amanpour showcasing it like it is such a new thing? — belied the lack of embarrassment when our love for transactional relationships shows up in other aspects of our public life.

The dirty little secret about transactional relationships is that they make relationships neater by simplifying often-messy terms and conditions into a stark monetary sum. After all, the logic goes, is it not better to pay for something in terms of money rather than something more shape-shifting like consideration, a listening ear, kindness, or even love? Relationships where people demand these things can be messy and difficult. If you could simply consolidate these bothersome demands into a naira sum and some pre-defined gender roles where the man brings the woman money and the woman supplies food and a warm bed, would it not make sense?

This same logic rears its head in our electoral politics. An infographic that went viral on social media recently cross-references March 2018 INEC data on uncollected Personal Voters’ Cards (PVCs) with 2017 Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative data on sub-national poverty rates. According to the INEC data, states with the highest percentage of abandoned PVCs are Lagos (1,401,390), Edo (449,001) and Ogun (426,890), and also happen to have the lowest sub-national poverty rates (8.5% in Lagos, 19% in Edo, and 27% in Ogun). Cross-reference this with the Oxford data and you have some interesting numbers.

By contrast, Bauchi, which has the least amount of uncollected PVCs at 15,542, has 87% of its populace impoverished. Zamfara State, which has only 55,062 uncollected PVCs, has 92% of its populace impoverished. Jigawa, which has 50,884 uncollected PVCs, has a subnational poverty rate of 88%. This data makes sense; PVCs are a source of electoral income everywhere, but it means more in states where little economic activity is happening. With their PVCs, citizens can tap into the election economy. They could sell their votes to the highest political bidder in exchange for money and food — a simple transaction in a country where oil money has ensured that government coasts largely on oil rents, not economic activities that engage its citizens.

Sub-national poverty rates do not tell the full story, however that our ruling class mobilizes poor Nigerians for a interests-for-votes system is the most important piece of our transactional politics. As a country, we have largely accepted that politicians in power have their interest groups, and being part of that interest group is the key to money and access. As with any other transactional relationship, this is indeed neater than demanding such shape-shifting things as good governance or actually fixing challenges that affect us all, like healthcare and education, in ways that address the problem and not a specific group’s interests. After all, these other things require that we be hawk-eyed, active citizens who follow up on these things we say we want.

However, when you have defined the terms of the political agreement as one wherein you must have huge sums of money to buy votes and/or interests, you create a simple transaction — money is paid, votes rendered, positions are given. Done. There is often neither “receipt” nor after-purchase customer service, no shape-shifting! The terms of the agreement have been set and cannot be changed until the next cycle.

Entire populations of Nigerians get shut out because they do not matter. Their lack of access to healthcare and good education does not matter. Their lack of access to good housing and humanitarian support when their homes have been burned down by terrorists does not matter. The politician who has won a new electoral position now has the upper hand. In fact the politician, like our president did recently at the Commonwealth Business Forum, is even free to insult the young Nigerians who make up the vast majority of our population by dismissing 60% of them as freeloaders less than a year to the elections without fear of penalty.

Our lack of willingness to adopt a messier approach to electoral politics has stalled our collective ability to build a country that we say we want. As the spectacle of the upcoming elections rolls on, we as Nigerians would do well to check the terms of which we accept this new crop of politicians we will be electing. Transactions can seem neater, but they have failed us time and again, and will continue to fail. It is time to embrace the messiness of actually demanding good governance from our leaders.


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