Since the introduction of the Smart Card Reader in 2015, the turnout in general and off-cycle elections have been hovering around 30 per cent. Beginning from early next year, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) intends to carry out a comprehensive overhaul of its system, to make it possible for more Nigerians to vote during elections. Deputy Political Editor RAYMOND MORDI, who has been monitoring the development reports
THE impact of youth voters in the recent United States election has emphasised the importance of that segment of the population in the political process. They came out in their numbers and made a difference. The election saw the highest voter turnout since 1900, with Democratic candidate Joe Biden and Republican flag bearer Donald Trump each receiving more than 70 million votes. Overall, 66.6 per cent of the eligible voting population had voted as at November 16, 2020. With more than 79 million votes, Biden received the most votes ever cast for a candidate in a US presidential election. In a contest defined by record turnout for both the Democratic and the Republican candidates, the outcome of the race was hinged on who was able to attract the most new votes.
This should be a warning signal to the political class in Nigeria who have always taken the electorate, including the youth for granted because their role in the democratic process has so far been peripheral. However, following the recent #EndSARS protest, there appears to be an awakening among Nigerian youths who constitute over 50 per cent of registered voters that the time has come to take a more active interest in the political process. So far, they have been relegated to playing marginal roles or none at all, owing to the influence of money in the process.
Aside from youths, Nigerians generally have been showing some degree of apathy when it comes to exercising their franchise. Since the return to civil rule in 1999, there has been a decline in voter turnout in elections. In 2003, records indicate that the country witnessed 69 per cent turnout. This reduced to 57 per cent in 2007, 44 per cent in 2015 and 34.75 in the last general elections in 2019.
After two decades of uninterrupted civilian rule, the declining turnout suggests the country is not making progress, as far as organising periodic elections are concerned. Billions of naira is spent to organise such elections but they end up being manipulated by a selfish political class for pecuniary gains. Against this background, what can be done to change the narrative from spending huge amounts on elections but end up achieving a low turnout to achieving high turnout with minimal resources?
Principal Programme Officer, Centre for Democracy and Development, Yusuf Shamsudeen believes the above figures do not add up and that they cannot be relied upon to make a fair assessment of the participation of voters in Nigerian elections. He said: “We need to look beyond the figures. There are a lot of issues we need to interrogate to know why people don’t go out to vote on election day.”
Shamsudeen who spoke during a recent current affairs programme on Raypower monitored in Lagos said the voters’ register is not reliable and needs to be properly updated because it contains a lot of double or triple registrations. He said the Smart Card Reader introduced by INEC has checkmated the tendency of politicians to snatch ballot boxes and stuff same with thump-printed ballot papers. The implication is that the introduction of technology, which limits the degree of electoral fraud and manipulations by politicians, is responsible for the increasing low turnout recorded in recent elections.
His words: “Innovations introduced by INEC has drastically reduced the percentage of voter turnout, ballot box snatching and stuffing of ballot boxes with thumb-printed ballot papers. This means that the figures we have bandied around in the past are not actually the real voter turnout. The huge figures of registered voters were used to manipulate the figures in favour of politicians who emerged victorious in elections before INEC introduced the Smart Card Reader. So, we need to look at the issue from this perspective.
“In recent times, people are actually coming out to sell their votes and not to vote for the candidate of their choice. What we need to do is to ensure that people believe in the process and that the outcome of an election is a reflection of the votes cast during that election. If people have the notion that politicians are vying for elective positions to steal money and not to work in the interest of the people, they are not likely to be motivated to go out and vote; they will be discouraged.”
The National Commissioner, in charge of Information and Voter Education, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Festus Okoye said many factors account for the drop in voter turnout that has been witnessed in successive elections since 1999. Okoye who also spoke during the programme blames the voters’ register and lack of faith in the electoral system for the low turnout recorded in recent elections.
The INEC National Commissioner said: “For instance, if you look at the statistics, in the 2019 general elections we had succeeded in registering over 84 million voters. So, in terms of the voter population, what we have in the register is 84 million voters but this did not reflect in the turnout at the end of the day. You will agree with me that the turnout has to do with the faith people have in the electoral process. So, we have learned valuable lessons in the recent US elections and we have agreed to take a second look at our voters’ register and see what ways we can bring it to current realities.
“What we are going to do from the first quarter of 2021 is (one), to update the voters’ register in terms of numbers. So many people are displaced from their communities and so many students who registered while at school have graduated and moved from where they registered to another location. There are also people who have moved from one place to another for different reasons. We have also recorded deaths and so the voters’ register ought to be updated. So, what we are going to do is a comprehensive update of the voters’ register, while also carrying out our continuous voter registration.
“We are also going to deepen the use of technology in the electoral process because many of our young persons are not interested in going to the polling units to cast their votes; they want to sit in the comfort of their homes and use their smartphones to vote, if possible. These are some of the improvements we are considering, going forward. As at today, we are not ruling out any options, such as registering electronically without going out to the registration points etc.
“But, technology cannot solve all the problems we have in connection with our elections. The biggest challenge we have is what I can the ‘weaponisation’ of violence in our electoral process. So many persons want to go out and vote, but don’t want to lose their lives in the process, given the type of violence that has characterised elections in recent times. So, we must find ways and means of sanitising the electoral environment to make it conducive for people to go out and vote.
“More concretely, political parties must offer something robust and something different ideologically from what we have been witnessing. They must also mobilise their supporters to go out and vote because this is one of their primary responsibilities. We must find ways of building strong institutions. If you look at the recent US elections, what made a difference is the integrity of institutions that support and enforce democracy.”
Okoye said Nigerians have something to learn from the recent elections in the US. He added: “The configuration of their electoral institutions is different from what we have in Nigeria. For example, most of the states are independent in terms of the way they configure their electoral institutions. Our electoral process is organised around INEC and in the US we can see that people who are driving the process are volunteers who believe in the institution of democracy and the sanctity of the electoral process. The second lesson is that democracy is not a finished product. Electronic voting will give us some level of accuracy and effectiveness so that our people will get value for their money.”
The INEC National Commissioner wants Nigerians to take advantage of the opportunity that would be provided by the commission early next year, to collect their cards from where they registered and for those who have not done so to register. He added: “If the people make the sacrifice to queue up and register, they should also endeavour to collect their cards when they are ready. We are going to open up the process of voters’ card collection early next year and we will implore Nigerians to make the effort to collect their cards. We are also going to provide an opportunity for people who have moved from where they registered to another location to transfer their voting point.
“If you look at the statistics of voter registration in Nigeria, you will find out that those who are between the ages of 18 and 35 constitute 51.11 per cent of registered voters. Unfortunately, most of them are students or were students as at the time they registered and during the time of voting, they are usually on holidays and most of them registered in their institutions. One of the things we are considering is how to reconfigure the electoral legal framework, to make it possible for Nigerians to vote wherever they are; rather than only at the place where they registered. So, we are looking at a comprehensive overhaul of the system.”
Former Minister of Education and presidential candidate in the last general elections, Dr. Obiageli Ezekwesili said voters in Nigeria “generally lack the level of influence necessary to compel the right political processes and good outcomes that serve the good of all in society”. Speaking recently during the launching of her fellowship and research study on how to fix politics in Nigeria and Africa at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, Germany, Dr. Ezekwesili said her research findings indicate that the poor state of affairs in Nigeria is the consequence of the quality of politics at play.
She said politics in Nigeria was not fulfilling the core requirement of a democratic system, which was to provide good governance for the common wellbeing of citizens. She said in a democratic system, “there are three triangular pillars which determine the kind of outcomes that politics will produce for the people”. Explaining the concept, the former World Bank Vice President said, “On the right angle or demand side of the triangle is the electorate; on the left or supply side is the politicians, political class and parties; and at the top is the regulatory – the constitutional, legal, electoral and institutional context within which the politics happen.”
The former minister said the tripod pillars create an interconnecting network of actions that determine the outcomes of every political system. Her words: “Every pillar or angle of the triangle must function effectively and concurrently with the other two to enable the right quality of politics that will deliver strong economic performance for a people. In evaluating the outcome of politics in Nigeria and Africa, my study established that the quality of the electorate, quality of the political class and quality and lack of independence and capacity of political institutions constitute a structural and systemic problem for democracy and must therefore be fixed by citizens.”
Dr. Ezekwesili said Nigeria is ridden with politicians without competing ideas of how to solve the problems of citizens and that they lack a culture of public service and to subordinate the common good to their personal and narrow interests. She said: “The constitutional, legal, institutional and regulatory environment is compromised by the political class to more frequently act without independence, fairness and adherence to the rule of law. The political space is thus completely monopolised by the supply side of governance, which is the political class, thereby causing political, economic and social stagnation for the nation and people.
“Currently in our politics, voters generally lack the level of influence necessary to compel the right political processes and good outcomes that serve the good of all in society. The bright prospect is that evidence from the #FixPolitics research shows that citizens are the only angle of the triangle that can act and propel systemic change by collectively and decisively acting for their common good.”