Hurtful apathy: Nigeria’s democracy, where minority decides for majority

TUNDE AJAJA examines the factors fuelling voter apathy in Nigeria, its implications for governance and the solutions

As months faded into weeks and then days, the apprehension generated ahead of the November 6, 2021 governorship election in Anambra State began to abate gradually. Evidently, the insecurity in the South-East region and the warning by the proscribed secessionist group, Indigenous People of Biafra, that it would enforce its sit-at-home order during the election had worsened most people’s fears about the election.

But following the assurances of a peaceful election by the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), all the security agents and the Independent National Electoral Commission, coupled with the persuasion of aggrieved persons by leaders from the region, peace soon found its way back to the state and the South-East.

The assets deployed by the police, the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps were equally reassuring. While the NSCDC deployed 20,000 personnel for the poll, the police deployed 34,587 policemen, consisting conventional police officers, Police Mobile Force, the Counter Terrorism Unit, Special Forces, Explosive Ordnance Unit, Force Intelligence Bureau, INTERPOL, Special Protection Unit, a medical team and marine police operatives. These were in addition to the three helicopters deployed for aerial surveillance, the Inspector-General of Police, Usman Alkali Baba, told journalists.

In spite of the fact that many awaited the day with bated breath, the election was adjudged peaceful. Residents, political parties, diplomatic bodies, civil society organisations, who monitored the election, and the United States Mission in Nigeria affirmed this.

A coalition of over 70 CSOs, under the aegis of Nigerian Civil Society Situation Room in a statement signed by its convener, Ene Obi, and co-conveners, Asma’u Joda and James Ugochukwu stated, “Generally, the Anambra State governorship election was violence-free to the relief of stakeholders. Situation Room commends the commitment of individuals and groups who made efforts to mediate peace and reduce political tension in the state.”

Similarly, the United States Mission in Nigeria described the exercise as a “secured election with a credible outcome”. It said in a statement, “The United States government congratulates the citizens of Anambra State for the peaceful conduct of the gubernatorial election on November 6, the outcome of which reflects the will of the people.”

Sadly, however, in spite of the peaceful conduct of the election and the interest it generated across the country and beyond, only about 10.03 per cent of the registered voters in the state participated in the exercise.

According to the INEC register, Anambra State has 2,525,471 registered voters, but only 253,388 persons voted, which represents about 10.03 per cent of the registered voters. In fact, the winner, being the candidate of the All Progressives Grand Alliance, Charles Soludo, polled a paltry 122,229 votes.

It’s no doubt a classic case of the minority deciding for the majority, especially for a state that has a population of about 8.3 million people and about 2.5 million registered voters.

While some persons might, understandably, argue that the insecurity that pervaded the state prior to the election was responsible for the low voter turnout, previous elections in the state also witnessed low voter turnout. In the 2017 governorship election in the state, out of the 2,158,171 registered voters, only 448,771 persons, representing 20.79 per cent voted. In 2013, about 25 per cent voted. A decline in voter apathy is however evident.

Meanwhile, poor turnout of voters is not exclusive to Anambra State; it has in fact become emblematic of elections in the country. Whether on- or off-season, voter apathy has become a serious challenge to Nigeria’s democracy.

Findings by our correspondent showed that after a relatively impressive turnout of voters in 1999 when Nigeria returned to democracy after years of military rule, and some years after, a steady decline in voter turnout began. Indeed, statistics showed that the low turnout got worse in subsequent elections after the 2003 election.

A political scientist at the University of Lagos, Dr Kayode Esuola, attributed the decline in voter participation to, among other things, the electorate’s disappointment in democratic governance, which explains why the voter apathy has been on a steady increase.

“After the military rule, people’s expectation of democracy was that it would solve all their socioeconomic problems, like unemployment, education, poor infrastructure, insecurity, etc., but it did not appear to address these problems. As a matter of fact, it appeared the problems became aggravated. This naturally discouraged people from voting because they didn’t get what they expected from democratic governance.”

In 1999, there were 57,938,945 registered voters, but only 30,280,052 voted, representing 52.26 per cent.

In 2003, the number of registered voters rose to 60,823,022 while the number of voters also increased to 42,018,735, representing 69.08 per cent.

In 2007, the election was marred with serious irregularities, as admitted by the winner of the election, late President Umaru Yar’Adua. Reports however indicated that registered voters increased to 61,567,036 while the number of voters dropped to 35,397,517, representing 57.49 per cent.

In 2011, the number of registered voters rose to 73,528,040 while the number of persons that voted in the election was 39,469,484, representing 53.67 per cent.

Interestingly, while the number of registered voters was on a steady increase, the cost of elections was increasing while the percentage of voters was declining. This, Esuola, attributed to the fact that not everybody who registers with INEC plans to vote. “Some people registered and obtained the PVC to be able to operate within the system, like opening a bank account and tendering it as a form of identification, among others,” he added.

In 2015, the number of registered voters had dropped to 68,833,476, perhaps after a cleanup of the voter register. However, only 29,432,083 voters participated in the election, representing 42.75 per cent.

In 2019, the number of registered voters rose to 82,344,107 while the number of voters was 28,614,190, representing 34.74 per cent.

The apathy is not in presidential elections alone; it is across the board, including National Assembly elections, governorship elections, House of Assembly elections and local government elections, in which case many people do not also participate despite being the closest government to the grassroots.

A cursory look at some recent governorship elections underscores the extent of the voter apathy. In the Edo State governorship election held on September 19, 2020, there were 2,210,534 registered voters but only 537,407 voted, representing 24.31 per cent.

In the October 10, 2020 governorship election in Ondo State, there were 1,822,346 registered voters in the state and 1,478,460 collected their permanent voter cards. However, only 607,193 votes were cast, representing 33.33 per cent.

Interestingly, as witnessed in most elections in the country, the number of votes cast was often lower than the number of accredited voters. In the 2019 election, the number of accredited voters was 29,364,209 while the number of votes cast was 28,614,190. This implies that about 750,019 persons went for accreditation but didn’t wait to vote.

Election monitors and political scientists told our correspondent that if the process is too cumbersome or stressful, it could dissuade people from voting, especially when they feel their participation in previous elections did not bring positive changes to their lives.

The Co-founder and Director of Programme, YIAGA Africa, Ms Cynthia Mbamalu, told Sunday PUNCH, “If the process is cumbersome or stressful, like late commencement of voting due to logistics challenges or the technology deployed not functioning optimally, it also serves as a form of disincentive for voters.”

Also, a former INEC National Commissioner and professor of sociology, Lai Olurode, said it’s good that both accreditation and voting were merged but that “It’s still an ordeal going through the electoral process and it’s worse that people stay in the sun or in the rain with nothing to show for it.”

Notably, one of the cardinal dividends of democracy is the opportunity it gives the citizens to participate in how their leaders emerge, which is absent in most other systems of government. But when the people fail to participate, it seems to erode the whole essence of the democracy.

The Chairman, Partners for Electoral Reform, Mr Ezenwa Nwagwu, explained in an interview with our correspondent that the voter card is more powerful than the way people view it.

He said, “Many people make the mistake of referring to infrastructural development as dividend of democracy. No. The military would give you roads; bridges – the military gave us most of the enduring infrastructure that we have in Nigeria today, talk of Third Mainland Bridge, Niger Bridge, and others – they would construct dams; build schools; provide jobs and even provide free education. But, they take away your choice, which voting gives you.

“The only leadership-recruitment process that you have in a democracy is election. If you say ‘I don’t care; it doesn’t concern me; I’ve been voting in elections and nothing has changed’; it means you don’t understand the value of freedom and democracy.”

Reasons Nigerians shy away from voting

One could safely conclude that the reasons for the rising voter apathy are multidimensional. Interactions with different stakeholders in the political process showed that the reasons for the perennial low voter turnout range from poor quality of governance over the years to violence during elections, lack of trust in the credibility of the exercise, in which case people doubt if their votes would count and questionable register

Speaking to the reasons for the worsening apathy, Olurode, the former INEC National Commissioner, said poor governance and a feeling of alienation from the state discouraged people from voting. He said the apathy had degenerated to a level that political parties lured people, especially the poor, with food or money, for them to vote, which he said did not augur well for Nigeria’s democracy.

He added, “People have become disenchanted because they cannot see or feel the so-called dividends of democracy. So, over the years they feel there is no justification being a part of the process that put persons that won’t deliver on their promises in power. So, they stay away.

“Also, political violence before, during and after elections discourage many. They feel there is no need putting their lives at risk to elect somebody who will not reckon with them while in office. The election environment is not peaceful or conducive enough for people to participate.”

Also, Mbamalu explained that the voter turnout study conducted by Yiaga Africa after the 2019 election showed as part of its findings, though yet-to-be released, that a lot of people felt disconnected from the government as a result of the poor quality of governance.

She added, “When voters do not believe the government represents their interest or the quality of leadership does not meet their needs, like stalling on important legislative actions, provision of basic amenities, they would see no justification for voting. Some of them would tell you they voted the last time and nothing changed so why should they stand in the sun or a long queue to vote again. Consistently, we are seeing the failure of leadership at all levels.

“Another factor is citizens appreciating the value of democracy. We have a history of military rule and we are just learning the culture of voting and demanding accountability. So, a lot of citizens still need to understand why they need to come out to vote. This is important because if people do not show up to vote, they lose that advantage of deciding who they want in power and who they do not want.

“Also, there is a lot of distrust or lack of confidence in the process. People stay away because they feel their votes might not count, and once they have experienced that before, it affects their trust in the system. “If the process is not credible, voters will not trust that their votes will count so they might stay away.”

She added, “If you look at the cost of elections and juxtapose it with the turnout of voters, you begin to wonder if spending this much in conducting elections is actually giving us the democracy we crave. But if we have quality leadership, we won’t be focusing on the cost.”

Similarly, the Executive Director, Policy and Legal Advocacy Centre, Mr Clement Nwankwo, ascribed the rising apathy to people’s continuous loss of fate in the electoral process and poor governance. “People don’t see their lives improve, neither do they see development increase, which makes them feel it doesn’t matter who is in office, they would not do what is expected. So, expectations of citizens from political leaders have continued to decrease.”

Esuola also corroborated the insecurity factor, saying, “When you hold an election in an environment that is not secured, coming out for voting may not be very appealing. The political environment is not stable or safe, so elections are conducted under tense, cohesive atmosphere, which is why people are mandatorily asked to stay at home. That discourages many people because they see it as a risk.”

The huge cost of apathy

Many people, instead of voting, take election days as holiday, given the restriction of movement. So they sit at home and rest while some watch analysis on the television. Some others take to the streets to play football while some visit friends. But, according to people knowledgeable about the electoral process, that apathy means the minority decides for the majority.

From his vantage point as a former INEC National Commissioner, Olurode said when people stayed away, the minority would decide for the majority. He said, “The implication is that the minority is putting people in power. Maybe if the majority had come out to vote, the outcome would have been completely different.”

Also, Nwankwo noted that refusal to vote paved the way for mediocre leaders in government. He said, “Your failure to participate means you would be governed by less intelligent people. When Nigerians feel those who are ruling them are not of good quality and they don’t bother to vote as a result of that, the problem is that those people who are not as intelligent, knowledgeable or discerning as them are the ones that make decisions that affect them.

“The consequences are there for all to see because government is not delivering on expectations. Good governance is missing, corruption level is high and politics is now a mercantile undertaking by those who see it as a means of livelihood. So, development suffers when people, especially informed voters, stay away. We will be understating it to say people should take voting very seriously.”

Mbamalu also explained that when people stood aloof, decisions would be made on their behalf by people less informed than they are.

She stated, “There is a huge nexus between voting, quality of leadership and development, because when we come out in numbers to vote, we vote in better leaders who have the interest of the nation at heart and would commit to developing the country.

“The implication is that our future is decided by a few and we are electing the least among us, because we are not even having the best candidates. Imagine if we have 70 per cent turnout, it gives a better chance to candidates who have the requisite capacity and competence to lead to be elected.

“So, the more we do not vote, especially the educated, the informed and passionate citizens, the lesser our chances of having the desired development because the few that come out to vote would make decisions, not necessarily from an informed point of view but maybe based on deception by the political elite. That is why we don’t have people with capacity and competence in office. How then do we achieve development?”

Speaking about people who don’t vote as a form of protest, Mbamalu said the best protest vote was coming out to vote. “Some people stay away from voting in protest because they are disappointed in the government, but we protest best when we vote. Protest vote is coming out to vote for the opponent of an individual who has not done well,” she added.

Political parties as enablers of voter apathy

Given the views that the apathy has also been fuelled by bad governance and the poor quality of leaders, it is instructive that political parties, being the only platforms to contest elections, cannot be absolved of blame because they sometimes present mediocre candidates. Unfortunately, this constrains the few Nigerians who vote to choose between from among the lot.

Nwankwo said, “Political parties need to make intellectual and character uprightness a consideration and reduce the penchant for pushing for moneybags, such that only the best of all emerge, else they will continue to present mediocre candidates that voters would have to choose from.

“The parties have a lot of work to do, but unfortunately they are just as weak as the politicians and have been hijacked by government leaders in the executive, whether governors or the president.

“If you have enlightened leaders at that level, they can begin to divest themselves from their hold on the political parties and help to entrench strong democratic practices that would allow participation by people who really want to contribute to national development, but certainly not with the people we have now.

“This President doesn’t show the capacity to rise above the fray and unfortunately, the governors are following that trend and are doing what they like.”

Olurode also lamented that what obtains in many political parties is oligarchy and that many competent persons are sometimes not allowed to feature. “The money culture in the political party system is the ruin of our democracy. I don’t see how upright persons can emerge as a candidate in those parties,” he added.

Mbamalu also said, “Political parties are not helping because their role in the electoral process undermines the process and creates a lot of disincentives to participate.”

For example, influential London-based news magazine, The Economist, lamented the choices before Nigerians in the 2015 presidential election when it wrote in its February 7, 2015 editorial, “Nigerians must pick between the incumbent, Goodluck Jonathan, who has proved an utter failure, and the opposition leader, Muhammadu Buhari, a former military dictator with blood on his hands. The candidates stand as symbols of a broken political system that makes all Nigeria’s problems even more intractable. We are relieved not to have a vote in this election.”

Interestingly, African countries like Ghana, Rwanda with higher socioeconomic indices than Nigeria, apathy is low. In Rwanda for example, a report by Election Guide, showed that between 2003 and 2018, the lowest turnout was about 89 per cent, recorded in 2003, while it was 98.15 per cent in 2018.

The path to a participatory electoral process

Experts who spoke to our correspondent said for more Nigerians to participate in voting, there should be increased voter education, good governance, overhauled voter register and a credible and transparent electoral process.

Olurode said, “Good governance is important if you want people to vote because there is a large social discontent. We must return the party to the people and there should be internal democracy so people don’t feel alienated. What we have in parties now is a typical oligarchy, where a few people control the parties. Those that are competent are sometimes not even allowed to feature at all.

“Also, after the 2023 general elections, I suggest INEC concentrate on how to sanitise the register because we don’t have a clean register. There are duplications, underage persons and people that have died there, so the database is faulty and exaggerated, and that impacts the cost too because we plan and print ballot papers for people that are not there.”

Our correspondent had in the past witnessed the cancelling of bundles of unused ballot papers, due to poor voter turnout. “The papers are useless,” a presiding officer said based on enquiry.

Also, Mbamalu said for people to vote, elections must be seen as credible, transparent and easily accessible to voters, adding that there was a better chance of achieving development when people voted in good leaders.

On voter education, she said it’s a collective responsibility that involves INEC, the National Orientation Agency, religious organisations, CSOs and the media to play their part. “Parties have a major role to play but they failed woefully in that role of educating the citizenry. However, they can still take up that responsibility. In the end, everyone has a role to play,” she added.

Nwagwu also called for increased funding for the NOA and engaging civic educators to further drive the enlightenment.

Nwankwo also echoed the all-important need for a clean register, adding that political parties, CSOs and the media have roles to play in voter education. He advised against the restriction on movement on election days, saying it’s counter-productive.

He added, “I find that shutdown unhelpful to voter turnout, because people take that day as a holiday. Someway, we have to find a way of keeping business going on election days, save for some things.

“Also, I think that shutdown promotes violence. Like they say, the idle hand is the devil’s workshop. The criminal elements have a quick move around. If mobility is reduced for the violent ones, they would be much more afraid of coming out and elections would be less violent because there would be citizens enforcement.”

Esuola also advised that Nigeria should adopt the kind of democracy that works for it, adding, “Another problem is the manipulation of the process whereby people who emerge didn’t emerge from majority voting. When people feel their votes do not count, they are likely to resolve to abstinence from voting.”


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