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Logging out of the 2019 Elections

"Improved turnout will give parliament and government the appearance of being more legitimate." - Peter Lynch

Electoral commission officers count votes at Shagari Health Unit polling station in Yola, Adamawa State on February 23, 2019 after the polls were closed during the day of the General elections. – Nigeria began counting votes in presidential elections, even as many people had yet to even cast their ballot because of delays in the opening of polling units and problems with staffing and technology. Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) last week announced a one-week delay to the election, just hours before it was due to get under way. The presidential contest will see incumbent Muhammadu Buhari (APC) seek to win a second four-year term against former vice president Atiku Abubakar (PDP). (Photo by Luis TATO / AFP) / 

“Improved turnout will give parliament and government the appearance of being more legitimate.” – Peter Lynch

A few years ago I was privy to a “trial” somewhere in Cross River state. Basically, a woman was accused of pilfering by her neighbour and reported to the authorities. On the appointed trial date (the day after the report was lodged), she was summoned by the adjudicating authorities and asked to report for trial. She refused, simply because she did not recognise the authority of that court. So, they came and carried her to court.

The trial lasted 30 minutes. The procedure was shockingly simple — the plaintiff made her complaint, the defendant retorted, the plaintiff was given a chance to respond, and finally, the defendant had another say. When that was done, the three judges huddled together and came to their decision. Not guilty.

This lady who had earlier refused to accept the authority of what was effectively a militant court became a convert. One more person had logged out of the Nigerian state. I can almost guarantee that that lady did not come out to vote this weekend past.

Based on the results that have been released as of this point, Nigeria’s voter numbers are shrinking, when they ought to be rising. Based on our population projections, between 2015 and now, about 17 million more Nigerians became eligible to vote, and INEC’s own figures showed that more people registered, and collected their voter identity cards. Yet, we are on course for the lowest turnout since we began our current democratic exercise.

This low turnout is a bit incongruous with the numbers that INEC published for voter card collection, a number which was queried by someone in the office given the sheer amount of complaints we heard during the CVR exercise. Someone else quipped that people came out to collect their PVCs because it was a cheap identity card, but people wouldn’t come out to vote. I’m afraid he appears to have been right.

In Lagos, the votes for both parties, of course other mushroom parties existed on the ballot, shrank from 1.4 million in the last election to 1.02 million this year despite a higher number of registered voters. In some parts of the South East, we saw turnout as low as 11 per cent, and even in the much vaunted APC strongholds of Kano and Katsina, voter turnout appears to have fallen as well. I saw a tweet referencing voter turnout from those states (and some other Northern states) in terms of absolute numbers, and what struck me was that the absolute numbers are approximately the same. To me this means that while the population is increasing, and getting younger, it is the same set of people, largely, who are voting, and even these voters are logging out. Fast in the South, but also in the North too. Such things bring a crisis of legitimacy, and that is a danger to our democracy, as people, looking for someone to lead, would naturally turn to unsavoury characters to lead them.

It should worry everyone that since 2003, turnout has consistently dropped by 69%. Even 2007 which the winner acknowledged was heavily rigged had 57 per cent turnout. 2011 was 54 per cent, and 2015 was 44 per cent. As per the Youth Initiative For Advocacy, Growth And Advancement, YIAGA, “turnout for the 2019 elections falls below the bar set in 2015. This reflects the growing sense of disconnect between the Nigerian people and the political elite.”

Back to the “trial” I talked about at the start of this piece —by sitting in judgement over people, the extra-state actors who held the trial will have gained some legitimacy. To enforce that, they will by necessity have some levers of violence, and the people in their territory will cede those levers of violence to them. The implied social contract is this — you have the levers of violence, so you provide us two things, justice and security. It means that if they are not on the vote, then people will not come out to vote.

In fulfilling that implied contract, they will need to raise funds, and as a result, will begin to, slowly at first, tax the people around. Is it a stretch at this point to see how they will become an alternative government?

A relatively comparable story can be told from Mexico, turnout fell from a high of 77% in 1994, consistently to 59% in 2006. This coincided with the rise of various drug cartels that essentially became an alternative state. On 11 December 2006, the government launched a war against the drug gangs, and since the government began to gain the upper hand, election turnout has been rising – 63% in 2012, and 64% last year. It appears that slowly, the people are seeing their government working for them, and are beginning to engage again, with the democratic process.

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